Nuclear Regulation:

Process for Backfitting Changes in Nuclear Plants Has Improved

RCED-86-27: Published: Dec 24, 1985. Publicly Released: Dec 24, 1985.

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GAO commented on: (1) a backfitting process the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) uses to require modifications at operating nuclear power plants; (2) the effect of those actions on selected facilities; and (3) improvements that should be made.

GAO found that individual units of NRC decentralized staff had raised safety concerns that utilities believed must be met as a condition for obtaining approval to operate their plants; however, NRC did not perform detailed analyses of the resulting benefits and costs or determine whether the changes would provide substantial additional protection. GAO found that, in 1981, NRC took steps to better manage backfitting by: (1) creating a senior management committee to review those backfits that apply to several or all plants; (2) developing another management system for backfits that apply to features unique to one plant; and (3) requiring documented analyses of the estimated safety benefits and costs of proposed backfits. Although the NRC staff followed the new processes in imposing some new requirements, other backfits occurred outside of the established systems. GAO found that, in order to: (1) eliminate the disagreement over what constitutes backfitting, NRC needs to define more precisely what it means by backfitting; (2) ensure that backfits receive appropriate senior management review, NRC should not require utilities to comply with new or modified regulations or staff positions unless they are imposed by a designated NRC official on the basis of documented analyses demonstrating that they provide a substantial increase in protection; and (3) have effective management of backfits, NRC should periodically assess the performance of its managers and staff in adhering to the new backfit rule and management systems.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC agreed and stated that statements conveying this direction have been introduced at the beginning of its operations manual chapter on identifying plant-specific backfits. No accomplishment report will be taken because the recommendation is not of significant enough scope to warrant the time and effort that would be required.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should revise the agency's plant-specific backfitting procedures to explicitly state that the NRC staff are responsible for identifying and processing, in accordance with the plant-specific backfitting procedures, all new or amended plant-specific positions taken by the staff.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC included its preferred definition, unique to a specific plant, in the definition section on plant-specific backfitting. No accomplishment report will be prepared because the recommendation and agency action lacks sufficient significance.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should revise the agency's plant-specific backfitting procedures to explicitly state that, to qualify as a plant-specific backfit, the technical basis for a new or revised staff position taken must be unique to a specific plant or plant location.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission


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