Nuclear Regulation:

Oversight of Quality Assurance at Nuclear Power Plants Needs Improvement

RCED-86-41: Published: Jan 23, 1986. Publicly Released: Jan 23, 1986.

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GAO reviewed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) efforts to: (1) identify declining performance trends in the operation of nuclear power plants that indicate the need for corrective action by utilities; and (2) require utilities to upgrade quality assurance programs when deficiencies are observed.

GAO found that NRC assessments have provided the agency and utilities with a useful perspective on the total operational effectiveness of nuclear power plants; however, they are limited in scope and could be more useful in promoting early detection of utility management weaknesses if the agency expanded the analyses and the way the assessment reports are used. In addition, GAO found that: (1) NRC decisions to require 12 utilities to upgrade their management capabilities and performance generally followed either numerous inspection violations or equipment failures; (2) NRC did not make such decisions on a consistent basis because of the discretionary authority granted to regional offices and a lack of criteria to mandate improvement programs or documentation of why they were not warranted; (3) NRC could improve the use of individual assessment reports, which identify utility management weaknesses by analyzing the results of the assessments over a number of years; and (4) NRC could gain a more accurate picture of how well a utility operates its nuclear plants by including plant operating data and reports of safety or operating incidents in its periodic assessments.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NRC believes that other methods such as senior management meetings, along with Systematice Assessment Licensee Performance (SALP) evaluations, provide information to determine when a utility management improvement program is needed. NRC also believes that the nuclear safety area is too complex and subjective for specific criteria to be developed.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should establish assessment-related criteria that, when met, would require the agency to either mandate a utility management improvement program or document the reasons why such a program is not warranted.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC implemented this recommendation when it revised its assessment reporting procedures and required that these reports include appraisals of discernible performance trends. It established a SALP Management Summary System to provide summary and detailed SALP information for each operating facility. The SALP History Report reports results of all SALPs completed at a given facility.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should routinely analyze historical assessment results and discuss marginal and declining performance trends in individual assessment reports.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NRC initiated a Performance Indicator Program late in 1986 to provide quarterly reports on operating events, such as safety system failures and forced outages. NRC does not believe trends in nuclear power plant operating performance indicators should be included in the SALP process. Instead, NRC informally considers trends when its managers get together semi-annually to discuss problem plants.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should expand the information considered in periodic assessments to include readily available data on trends in nuclear power plant operating performance.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 1986, NRC reemphasized that assessments of utilities' quality program and administrative controls should by broad-based. Although the SALP manual does not specifically state that the other nine functional area assessments should be included, the thrust of the memorandum is that a comprehensive overall review of the management control systems should be included.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should, include in the agency's assessment deliberations on a utility's quality program and administrative controls performance, the results of its assessments in the other nine technical areas.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission


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