Monday, August 24, 2015

NRC Regulation of Safety Culture: How They Do It

We have griped many times about how the NRC does, in fact, regulate (i.e., control or direct) licensee safety culture (SC) even though the agency claims it doesn’t because there is no applicable regulation.

A complete description of the agency’s approach was provided in 2010 NRC staff testimony* before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.  Note this testimony was given before the Safety Culture Policy Statement was issued but we believe it depicts current practices.  The key point is that “Oversight of an operating reactor licensee’s safety culture is implemented by the ROP [Reactor Oversight Process].” (p. 17)  Following are some lengthy quotes from the testimony and you can decide whether or not they add up to “regulation.”

“The ROP provides for the oversight of a licensee’s safety culture in four ways.  First, the ROP provides for the review of a licensee’s safety culture in a graded manner when that licensee has significant performance issues.  The level of the staff’s oversight is determined by the safety significance of the performance issues.  This review and evaluation is described in the ROP’s supplemental inspection program . . . An IP 95002 inspection is usually performed when a licensee enters [column 3] . . . of the ROP Action Matrix. . . [In certain circumstances] the NRC will request the licensee to perform an independent safety culture assessment.  An IP 95003 inspection is performed when a licensee enters [column 4] . . . of the ROP Action Matrix.  When this occurs, the NRC expects [emphasis added] the licensees to perform a third-party safety culture assessment.  The staff will review the results of the assessment and perform sample evaluations to verify the results.

“Second, the ROP’s reactive inspection program evaluates a licensee’s response to an event, including consideration of contributing causes related to the safety culture components, to fully understand the circumstances surrounding an event and its probable causes.

“Third, the ROP provides continuous oversight of licensee performance as inspectors evaluate inspection findings for cross-cutting aspects.  Cross-cutting aspects are aspects of licensee performance that can potentially affect multiple facets of plant operations and usually manifest themselves as the root causes of performance problems. . . .**

“Fourth, the ROP provides for the review of a licensee’s safety culture if that licensee has difficulty correcting long-standing substantive cross-cutting issues.  In these cases, the NRC will request the licensee to perform a safety culture assessment, and the NRC Staff will evaluate the results and the licensee’s response to the results.” (pp. 18-19)  In addition, “The ROP assessment process looks at long-standing substantive cross-cutting issues to determine if safety culture assessments need to be performed and reviewed.” (p. 24)  Significantly, “Safety culture is addressed through the use of cross-cutting issues which do not relate to the Action Matrix column that a plant may be placed in.” (p. 32)

Our Perspective

In our opinion, SC is regulated via a linkage to ongoing NRC activities.  Outputs from NRC inspection activities performed under the aegis of regulation (i.e., law) are used to assess licensee SC and force licensees to perform activities, e.g., SC assessments or corrective actions***, that the licensees might not choose to perform of their own free will.

The reality is NRC “requests” or “expectations” are like a commanding officer’s “wishes”; the intelligent subordinate understands they have the force of orders.  Here’s how the agency describes the fist inside the glove: “If the NRC requests a licensee to take an action, and the licensee refuses, the Agency can perform that action (i.e., the safety culture assessment) for them.” (p. 29)  We assume the NRC would invoke its regulatory authority to justify such an assessment.  But what licensee would want an under-experienced posse of federal inspectors, who expect to find problems because why else would they be assigned to the task, running through their organization?

Occasionally, the NRC drops the veil long enough to reveal the truth.  An NRC staffer (one of the witnesses who sponsored the ASLB testimony described above) recently made a presentation to the Korean nuclear regulator.  It included a figure that summarizes the SC aspects of the ROP Action Matrix.  Under columns 3 and 4, the figure says “may request” and “request” the licensee to conduct a SC assessment.  However, on the next page, the presentation bullets are more forthcoming: “For Plants in Columns 3 . . . and 4 . . . NRC requires [emphasis added] Licensee to conduct third party safety culture assessment which is reviewed by NRC.”****

We’re not opposed to the NRC squeezing licensees to strengthen their SC.  We just don’t like hypocrisy and doublespeak.  Perhaps the agency takes this convoluted approach to controlling SC to support their claim they don’t interfere with licensee management.  We don’t believe that; do you?


NRC Staff Testimony of V.E. Barnes et al Concerning Safety Culture and NRC Safety Culture Policy Development and Implementation before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (July 30, 2010) revised Sept. 7, 2010.  ADAMS ML102500605.

**  The ROP framework includes three cross-cutting areas (human performance, problem identification and resolution, and safety conscious work environment) which contain nine safety culture components. (p. 23)

***  This is another leverage point for the agency.  They make sure SC assessment findings are entered in the licensee’s corrective action program (CAP).  Then they use their regulatory authority over the CAP to ensure it is useful and effective, i.e., that SC corrective actions are implemented. (p. 30)

****  M. Keefe, “Incorporating Safety Culture into the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP),” presentation to the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (June 2-3, 2015), pp. 5-6.  ADAMS ML15161A109.

3 comments:

  1. During the comment period regarding the Safety Culture Policy statement I made several explicit comments to the effect that the methods and objectives behind the policy were in fact forcing functions which the licensee would necessarily perceive as limiting its risk tolerance.

    That said, it is not terribly clear that the situation for licensees has changed all that much from the days before the ROP when an Order Modifying License was a perfectly sufficient way for the NRC to get the attention of licensees toward what are today termed Cross Cutting Issues.

    Under the ROP the norms of acceptable SC seemingly have been clarified, but I've not seen the longitudinal study that demonstrates how we are better of with sociologist administered surveys over the former practice of having experienced senior staff and consultants conduct comprehensive interviews as the basis for substantive improvement plans.

    What seems as unrecognized as ever is that attention to Safety Culture is intended to increase the Resilience of the institution in the face of Unanticipated Events, particularly those Unwelcome ones (i.e embarrassing and easy to deny).

    INPO has long since figured out what it takes to run these plants reliably, even the aging ones - there is lots to observe and measure. However, the deeper currents of loss of collective experience, budget constraints or uncertainty about the future of a plant create kinds of vulnerability which don't directly correlate to the standard measures.

    My problem with SC has always been that its all about lagging indicators; in that sense I remain doubtful that the costly application of surveys and such is all the beneficial.

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  2. In the pre-ROP era, the NRC held regular Senior Management meetings where they discussed who had been (or was being) bad and how bad. Problematic behavior got a plant on the Watch List. One could argue those meetings generated more current performance indicators than hiding in the office waiting for a plant to get a White finding (lagging indicator) or cross-cutting issue (really lagging indicator).

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  3. I am still looking for a report of a U.S. nuclear power mishap attributed to poor safety culture that would not have been prevented by prudent competent business-like compliance with then existing requirements.

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