Monday, March 27, 2017

Nuclear Safety Culture: Catching up with the NRC

NRC Building
No big nuclear safety culture (NSC) news has come out of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) so far in 2017 but there have been a few minor items worth mentioning.

New Leadership Model for NRC*

In 2015, the NRC staff proposed developing an explicit NRC leadership model that would complement the agency’s existing Principles of Good Regulation and Organizational Values (Principles).  The model’s attributes would include “empowering employees . . . creative thinking, innovation, and informed risk-taking . . . .”  The Commission disagreed, saying staff should focus on the characteristics of the Principles that support the identified organizational attributes.

Subsequent staff research identified performance improvement opportunities in the areas of employee decision-making, empowerment and consensus, employee creativity, informed risk-taking and innovation.  They are re-proposing an explicit leadership model that focuses on “Empowerment & Shared Leadership, Innovation & Risk Tolerance, Participative Decision-Making, Diversity in Thought, Receptivity to New Ideas and Thinking, and Collaboration & Teamwork . . . .”

This was a significant social science project to rationalize development of a highly specified management model.  Could it contribute to improving the agency’s “effectiveness, efficiency, and agility”?  Or is it, in essence, a regulation that would suck energy away from what NRC leaders need to do to succeed in a changing environment?  You be the judge.

NRC Lessons-Learned Program (LLP)**

This program was established after the Davis-Bessie fiasco to review agency, nuclear industry and outside incidents for lessons-learned that verify or could strengthen NRC processes.  Because a recognized lesson-learned leads to an NRC corrective action plan (i.e., resource usage) there is a high threshold for accepting proposed lessons-learned.  In the past year, six incidents ranging from the government response to the Flint, MI water crisis to two gripe papers published by the Union of Concerned Scientists passed a preliminary screen.  Ultimately, none of the items met the LLP minimum criteria although all were addressed by other NRC groups or processes.  

The LLP Oversight Board is considering whether the LLP should be discontinued, the threshold should be lowered, or the status quo approach should be continued.  Our concern is that the hard-headedness which characterizes the nuclear industry has also infected the LLP and prevents them from being open to actually learning anything from the experience of others.

Continued NSC Pressure on Problem Plants

Finally, NRC continues to (rightfully) squeeze plants with recognized NSC problems to fix such problems.  Arkansas Nuclear One (ANO) has a Confirmatory Action Letter (CAL) that requires the plant to implement specific improvement steps, including establishing a NSC Observer function to monitor leader behavior and enhancing decision making to ensure NSC aspects are considered.***  We discussed ANO’s NSC problems at length on June 16, 2016.

Watts Bar received part 2 of an inspection report on plant performance in the areas of NSC and Safety Conscious Work Environment (SCWE).****  It was a continuation of the beat down they received in part 1 (which we reviewed on Nov. 14, 2016).  The major findings were site-wide challenges to Watts Bar’s SCWE and weaknesses in the criteria used to evaluate NSC standards.  The inspection team’s detailed findings were too numerous to list here but included disagreeing with the site’s interpretation of safety “pulsing” data, management relaxing the standards for evaluating NSC data, overly limited assessment of NSC survey results and weaknesses in the training for NSC monitors.  The report is worth reading to show what a diligent inspector sees when looking at the same plant-produced NSC data that management has been cherry-picking for positive results and trends.

Our Perspective

The first calendar quarter of 2017 looks like business as usual at the NRC, at least when it comes to NSC.  That’s probably as it should be; we really don’t want them to be too distracted by the downsizing and problems occurring in the U.S. commercial nuclear industry.  The agency is trying to figure out how to be more agile and, without saying so, looking forward to having to do the same work with fewer resources.  (While some costs, e.g., plant inspection activities, are variable and can scale down with the industry, our guess is much of their work/cost structure is more-or-less fixed.)

There was a safety culture session at the recent Regulatory Information Conference, which we will separately review.


*  Memo from V.M. McCree to NRC Commissioners, “Re-Examination of the Need for a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Leadership Model” (Feb. 6, 2017).  ADAMS ML16348A323.

**  Memo from V.M. McCree to NRC Commissioners, “Annual Report on the Lessons-Learned Program” (Feb. 17, 2017).  ADAMS
ML16231A323.

***  Letter from T.R. Farnholtz (NRC) to R. Anderson (ANO), “Arkansas Nuclear One – NRC Component Design Bases Inspection and Confirmatory Action Letter Follow-up Inspection Report 05000313/2016008 AND 05000368/2016008” (Feb. 28, 2017), pp. A3-5/-6.  ADAMS ML17059D000.

****  Letter from J.T. Munday (NRC) to J.W. Shea (TVA), “Watts Bar Nuclear Plant – NRC Problem Identification and Resolution Inspection (Part 2); and Safety Conscious Work Environment Issue of Concern Follow-up; NRC Inspection Report 05000390/2016013, 05000391/2016013” (March 10, 2017), pp. 2, 13-16.  ADAMS ML17069A133.

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