Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Regulatory Failure

...or how I learned to stop worrying and love the ROP.  A June 28, 2010 Wall Street Journal column titled, “Drilling for Better Information, The Financial Crisis and BP Share a Common Attribute: Regulatory Failure” (link below), while directed to the named cases, could (should) be considered by every regulatory body overseeing high risk technologies.  The highlighted quote near the end of the article provides the necessary impetus:  “When there is uncertainty about big risks, regulation ‘perpetually overshoots or undershoots its goals.’"   If true is there a legitimate question for nuclear regulation as to which it is doing?

Arguably the first issue would be, is there uncertainty about the big risks in nuclear power plant safety?  There is substantial reliance on PRA models and analyses of the plants’ hardware and safety systems and on that basis, “risk-informed” regulatory decisions are made.  The models are sophisticated, highly refined and accepted by most experts.  But does that mean we have confirmation of the risk values calculated in this manner?  Not clear.  But looking beyond the hardware to human performance, it becomes more clear that there is substantial uncertainty about this risk component.  The NRC and the industry have acknowledged both the importance of safety culture to nuclear safety and the lack of metrics to measure it.  (I suspect this will be addressed in an upcoming post by my colleague Lewis Conner when he talks about “known unknowns”.)  The ROP is the standard bearer for nuclear plant safety performance metrics but does not address culture or management performance.  The ROP indicators are almost universally green for all nuclear plants, making one wonder how well the ROP can differentiate performance.  And it would not be helpful to try to think of when ROP indicators have provided a leading signal of degrading safety performance.  The NRC seems content to assign responsibility for safety culture to licensees and regulate on the basis of outcomes.

If one concludes on this basis there is uncertainty about nuclear risks, is there a reason to believe the NRC is overshooting or undershooting?  I admit that I don’t really know.  At the most recent Commission meeting there was a colloquy regarding the value of the ROP vis-a-vis safety culture.  My recollection is that one of the NRR managers offered that the consistently good ROP metrics across the industry seemed to confirm that safety culture must be pretty good as well....then quickly amended his remark to note that no correlation between ROP and safety culture had been established.  So my concern is, does the NRC know where it is?  Undershooting or overshooting?

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