Last March, the NRC approved its safety culture policy statement.* At the time, a majority of commissioners issued supplemental comments expressing their concern that the policy statement could be used as a back door to regulation. The policy was issued in June, 2011. Enough time has lapsed to ask: What, if anything has happened, i.e., how is the NRC treating safety culture as it exercises its authority to regulate licensees?
We examined selected NRC documents for some plants where safety culture has been raised as a possible issue and see a few themes emerging. One is the requirement to examine the causes of specific incidents to ascertain if safety culture was a contributing factor. It appears some (perhaps most or all) special inspection notices to licensees include some language about "an assessment of whether any safety culture component caused or significantly contributed to these findings."
The obvious push is to get the licensee to do the work and explicitly address safety culture in their mea culpa to the agency. Then the agency can say, for example, that "The inspection team confirmed that the licensee established appropriate corrective actions to address safety culture."** A variant on this theme is now occurring at Browns Ferry, where the “NRC is reviewing results from safety culture surveys performed by the plant in 2011.”***
The NRC is also showing the stick, at least at one plant. At Fort Calhoun, the marching orders are: “Assess the licensee’s third party evaluation of their safety culture. . . . If necessary, perform an independent assessment of the licensee’s safety culture using the guidance contained in Inspection Procedure 95003."**** I think that means: If you can't/won't/don't perform an adequate safety culture evaluation, then we will. To back up this threat, it appears the NRC is developing procedures and materials for qualifying its inspectors to evaluate safety culture.
The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process is another way to get safety culture addressed. For example, Entergy got in 10 CFR 50.7 (employee protection) trouble for lowering a River Bend employee’s rating in part because of questions he raised. One of Entergy's commitments following ADR was to perform a site-wide safety culture survey. It probably didn’t help that, in a separate incident, River Bend operators were found accessing the internet when they were supposed to be watching the control board. Entergy also has to look at safety culture at FitzPatrick and Palisades because of incidents at those locations.*****
What does the recent experience imply?
The NRC’s current perspective on safety culture is summed up in an NRC project manager’s post in an internet Nuclear Safety Culture forum: “You seem to [sic] hung up on how NRC is going to enforce safety culture. We aren't. Safety culture isn't required. It won't be the basis for denying a license application. It won't be the basis for citing a violation during an inspection. However, if an incident investigation identifies safety culture as one of the root causes, we will require corrective action to address it.” (Note this is NOT an official agency statement.)
However, our Bob Cudlin made a more expansive prediction in his January 19, 2011 post: “. . . it appears that the NRC will “expect” licensees to meet the intent and the particulars of its policy statement. It seems safe to assume the NRC staff will apply the policy in its assessments of licensee performance. . . . The greatest difficulty is to square the rhetoric of NRC Commissioners and staff regarding the absolute importance of safety culture to safety, the “nothing else matters” perspective, with the inherently limited and non-binding nature of a policy statement.”
While the record to date may support the NRC PM’s view, I think Bob’s observations are also part of the mix. It’s pretty clear the NRC is turning the screw on licensee safety culture effectiveness, even if it’s not officially “regulating” safety culture.
* NRC Commission Voting Record, SECY-11-005, “Proposed Final Safety Culture Policy Statement” (March 7, 2011). I could not locate this document in ADAMS.
** IR 05000482-11-006, 02/07-03/31/2011, Wolf Creek Generating Station - NRC Inspection Procedure 95002 Supplemental Inspection Report and Assessment Followup Letter (May 20, 2011) ADAMS ML111400351.
*** Public Meeting Summary for Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, Docket No. 50-259 (Feb. 26, 2012) ADAMS ML12037A092.
**** Fort Calhoun Station Manual Chapter 0350 Oversight Panel Charter (Jan. 12, 2012) ADAMS ML120120661.
***** EN-11-026, Confirmatory Order, Entergy Operations Inc. (Aug. 19, 2011) ADAMS ML11227A133; NRC Press Release-I-12-002: “NRC Confirms Actions to be Taken at FitzPatrick Nuclear Plant to Address Violations Involving Radiation Protection Program” (Jan. 26, 2012) ADAMS ML120270073; NRC Press Release-III-12-003: “NRC Issues Confirmatory Orders to Palisades Plant Owner Entergy and Plant Operator” (Jan. 26, 2012) ADAMS ML120270071.