Friday, May 24, 2013

How the NRC Regulates Safety Culture

We have long griped about the back door regulation of safety culture (SC) in the U.S.  This post describes how the NRC gets to and through the back door.  (Readers familiar with the NRC regulatory process can skip this post.  If we get it wrong, please let us know.)

Oversight of Reactor Operations*

The Action Matrix

The NRC's Operating Reactor Assessment Program collects information from inspections (baseline and supplemental) and performance indicators (PIs) to develop conclusions about a licensee's safety performance.  Depending on the results of the NRC's assessment, a plant is assigned to a column in the Action Matrix, a table that categorizes various levels of plant performance and, for each level, identifies required and optional NRC and licensee actions.

The Action Matrix has five columns; the safety significance of plant problems increases as one goes from column 1 to column 5.  Plants in column 1 receive the NRC baseline inspection program, plants in columns 2-4 receive increasing NRC attention and licensee requirements and plants in column 5 have unacceptable performance and are not allowed to operate.

SC first becomes a consideration in column 2 when the NRC conducts a Supplemental Inspection using  IP 95001.  Licensees are expected to identify the causes of identified problems, including the contribution of any SC-related components, and place the problems in the plant's corrective action program (CAP).  NRC inspectors determine if the licensee's causal evaluations appropriately considered SC components and if any SC issues were identified that the corrective action is sufficient to address the SC issue(s).  If not, then the inspection report is kept open until the licensee takes sufficient corrective action.
For a plant in column 3, the licensee is again expected to identify the causes of identified problems, including the contribution of any SC-related components, and place the problems in the plant's CAP.  NRC inspectors independently determine if SC components caused or significantly contributed to the identified performance problems.  If inspectors cannot make an independent determination (e.g., the licensee does not perform a SC analysis) the inspection is kept open until the licensee takes sufficient corrective action.

If the NRC concludes SC deficiencies caused or significantly contributed to the performance issues, and the licensee did not recognize it, the NRC may request that the licensee complete an independent** SC assessment.  In other words, it is an NRC option.

For plants in column 4 or 5, the licensee is expected to have a third-party** SC assessment performed.  The NRC will evaluate the third-party SC assessment and independently perform a graded assessment of the licensee's SC.  Inspectors can use the results from the licensee's third party SC assessment to satisfy the inspection requirements if the staff has completed a validation of the third party SC methodology and related factors.  If the inspectors conduct their own assessment, the scope may range from focusing on functional groups or specific SC components to conducting a complete SC assessment 

Significant Cross-Cutting Issues

The NRC evaluates performance for seven cornerstones that reflect the essential safety aspects of plant operation.  Some issues arise that cross two or more cornerstones and result in a Significant Cross-Cutting Issue (SCCI) in the areas of Human Performance, Problem Identification and Resolution or Safety Conscious Work Environment.  Each SCCI has constituent components, e.g., the components of Human Performance are Decision-making, Resources, Work control and Work practices.  Each component is characterized, e.g., for Decision-making “Licensee decisions demonstrate that nuclear safety is an overriding priority” and has defining attributes, e.g., “The licensee makes safety-significant or risk-significant decisions using a systematic process, . . . uses conservative assumptions . . . [and] communicates decisions and the basis for decisions . . .” 

There are other components which are not associated with cross-cutting areas: Accountability, Continuous learning environment, Organizational change management and Safety policies.

Most important for our purpose, the NRC says the cross-cutting components and other components comprise the plant's SC components.

Thus, by definition analysis and remediation of SCCIs involve SC, sometimes directly.  For example, in the third consecutive assessment letter identifying the same SCCI, the NRC would typically request the licensee to perform an independent SC assessment.  (Such a request may be deferred if the licensee has made reasonable progress in addressing the issue but has not yet met the specific SCCI closure criteria.)

SCCIs are included with plants' annual and mid-cycle assessment letters.  Dana Cooley, a nuclear industry consultant, publishes a newsletter that summarizes new, continuing, closed and avoided SCCIs from the plant assessment letters.  The most recent report*** describes 15 new and continuing SCCIs, involving 6 plants.  Two plants (Browns Ferry and Susquehanna) have specific SC assessment requirements.

Our perspective

The NRC issued its SC Policy on June 14, 2011.  “The Policy Statement clearly communicates the Commission’s expectations that individuals at organizations performing or overseeing regulated activities establish and monitor a positive safety culture commensurate with the safety and security significance of their activities and the nature and complexity of their organizations and functions.”****

The SC Policy may be new to NRC licensees that do not operate nuclear reactors but as detailed above, the NRC's “expectations” have been codified in the operating reactor inspections for years.  (The SC language for the Action Matrix and SCCIs was added in 2006.)

Technically, there is no NRC regulation of SC because there are no applicable regulations.  As a practical matter, however, because the NRC can dig into (or force the licensees to dig into) possible SC contributions to safety-significant problems, then require licensees to fix any identified SC issues there is de facto regulation of SC.  SC is effectively regulated because licensees are forced to expend resources (time, money, personnel) on matters they might not otherwise pursue.

Because there is no direct, officially-recognized regulation of SC, it appears a weak SC alone will not get a plant moved to a more intrusive column of the Action Matrix.  However, failure to demonstrate a strong or strengthening SC can keep a plant from being promoted to a column with less regulatory attention.

Why does the industry go along with this system?  They probably fear that official regulation of SC might be even more onerous.  And it might be the camel's nose in the tent on NRC evaluation of licensee management competence, or looking at management compensation plans including performance incentives.  That's where the rubber meets the road on what is really important to a plant's corporate owners. 

*  This post is a high-level summary of material in the NRC Inspection Manual, Ch. 0305 “Operating Reactor Assessment Program” (Jun. 13, 2012), Ch. 0310 “Components Within the Cross-Cutting Areas” (Oct. 28, 2011) and NRC Inspection Procedures 95001 (Feb. 9, 2011), 95002 (Feb. 9, 2011) and 95003 (Feb. 9, 2011).  Many direct quotes are included but quotation marks have not been used in an effort to minimize clutter.

**  An independent SC assessment is performed by individuals who are members of licensee's organization but have no direct authority and have not been responsible for any of the areas being evaluated.  A third-party SC assessment is performed by individuals who are not members of the licensee's organization.  (IMC 0305, p. 4)

***  D.E. Cooley (SeaState Group), “NRC Reactor Oversight Program, Substantive Cross-Cutting Issues, 2012 Annual Assessment Letters, March 4, 2013 Data.” 

****  From the NRC website

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