Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Oversight of Nuclear Power Plant Safety Has Improved, but Refinements Are Needed

GAO-06-1029: Published: Sep 27, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 27, 2006.

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for overseeing the nation's 103 commercial nuclear power plants to ensure they are operated safely. The safety of these plants has always been important, since an accident could release harmful radioactive material. NRC's oversight has become even more critical as the potential resurgence of nuclear power is considered. NRC implemented a new Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) in 2000 to address weaknesses in its oversight of nuclear plant safety. In this report, GAO reviewed (1) how NRC oversees nuclear power plants, (2) the results of the ROP over the past several years, and (3) the status of NRC's efforts to improve the ROP. To complete this work, GAO analyzed programwide information, inspection results covering 5 years of ROP operations, and detailed findings from a nonprobability sample of 11 plants.

NRC uses various tools and takes a risk-informed and graded approach to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants. These tools consist of physical inspections of plants and quantitative measures or indicators of plant performance. They are risk-informed in that they focus on the aspects of operations considered most important to plant safety. On the basis of the results of this information, NRC takes a graded approach to its oversight, increasing the level of regulatory attention to plants where safety is declining. NRC assesses overall plant performance and communicates the results to the public, including providing detailed results of its oversight process through a Web site devoted to the ROP. Since 2001, the ROP has resulted in more than 4,000 inspection findings concerning plants' failure to fully comply with safe operating procedures, and NRC has subjected more than 75 percent (79) of the 103 plants to increased oversight for varying periods. Almost all of the inspection findings were for actions NRC considered important to correct but of low significance to safe plant operations. While the majority of plants received some level of increased oversight, only 5 plants were subjected to NRC's highest level of oversight. Plants in this category were generally subjected to this higher oversight for long periods due to the more systemic nature of their performance problems. NRC has improved its oversight process in various areas, but it has been slow to act on needed improvements, particularly in improving the agency's ability to identify and address early indications of declining safety performance. NRC is improving its oversight process on the basis of feedback from stakeholders, including better focusing inspections on areas most important to safety. NRC also is addressing what GAO believes has been a significant shortcoming by modifying the ROP to improve its ability to address plants' safety culture--that is, the organizational characteristics that ensure issues affecting nuclear plant safety receive the attention their significance warrants. GAO and others, including some stakeholders, believe these changes could enable NRC to better identify safety culture issues and thus provide earlier indications of declining plant safety performance. However, some in the industry have opposed the changes because they believe the changes could introduce undue subjectivity to NRC's oversight, given the difficulty in measuring these often intangible and complex concepts. NRC has been reluctant to incorporate safety culture into the ROP because it considered this type of activity as a management function, and NRC did not believe that it should be directly involved in managing licensees' plants. NRC program officials view the current changes as the beginning of an incremental approach and acknowledge that they will need to assess their effectiveness at identifying declining safety performance at plants before significant safety events occur.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC has taken several actions to implement this recommendation. First, NRC completed an 18-month initial implementation period for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of its actions to incorporate safety culture into the Reactor Oversight Process. Second, NRC extensively modified its inspection procedure (IP) 95003, "Supplemental Inspection for Repetitive Degraded Cornerstones, Multiple Degraded Cornerstones, Multiple Yellow Inputs, or One Red Input" by adding guidance to describe how NRC will (1) evaluate a licensee's safety culture assessment and (2) perform its own assessment of the licensee's safety culture. Third, in December 2008, NRC issued revised Inspection Manual Chapter (IMC) 0612, "Power Reactor Inspection Reports to address the audit group's insights. Fourth, in January 2009, NRC issued revised IMC 0305 that included several safety culture related changes, including guidance for NRC regional offices regarding the inspections that can be performed to gather insights on how a licensee is addressing its repetitive substantive cross-cutting issue. Finally, also in January 2009, NRC issued revised IP 95003 to provide guidance on how NRC will provide a graded safety culture assessment.

    Recommendation: Given its importance to improving NRC's ability to identify declining safety performance at nuclear power plants before significant safety problems develop, the NRC commissioners should aggressively monitor; evaluate; and, if needed, implement additional methods or processes to increase the effectiveness of its efforts under the ROP to assess safety culture at plant.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2009, NRC issued revised Inspection Manual Chapter 0307 entitled "Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) Self-Assessment Program" to add a specific measure to determine the effectiveness of the safety culture initiative. NRC also added specific questions to its internal and external ROP self-assessment surveys to solicit feedback on the safety culture effort. After completion of the initial 18-month implementation period, NRC plans to add additional performance metrics to IMC 0307 in an effort to effectively monitor and trend licensee performance.

    Recommendation: Given its importance to improving NRC's ability to identify declining safety performance at nuclear power plants before significant safety problems develop, the NRC commissioners should, in addition to periodically evaluating the effectiveness of its safety culture efforts, through its performance indicator program, develop specific indicators to measure important aspects of plants' safety culture. Trends in these performance indicators could be useful feedback to NRC on its safety culture activities. The indicators could also provide useful information to the public and other NRC stakeholders on the safety culture at plants.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC has created a new Web page that provides consolidated and comprehensive data on the nuclear power plants with substantive, open cross-cutting issues. Based on NRC's 2006 mid-cycle reviews, the Web page identified eight nuclear power plants that had cross-cutting issues related to problem identification and resolution, human performance, and/or a safety-conscious work environment.

    Recommendation: In the absence of performance indicators or other performance metrics for plants' safety culture, the NRC commissioners should make publicly available, through the ROP Web site, consolidated and comprehensive data on the plants that have substantive cross-cutting issues open. These data would provide a more comprehensive picture of plant performance and provide insights into aspects of the plants' safety culture that otherwise are not readily available on the Web site.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission


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