NRC Plans Increased Focus on Reactor Safety Culture

Morgan Lewis - Up & Atom

Morgan Lewis - Up & Atom

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently published a memorandum from the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation (NRR) documenting planned changes to the NRR’s Safety Culture Inspection Program. The NRC expects to implement these changes by the end of 2023.

Licensees will likely welcome the NRC’s conclusion that it does not have the authority to require an independent safety culture assessment before a plant can exit Column 2 of the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) Action Matrix, as originally recommended by an internal NRR working group. However, the remainder of the planned changes raise the potential for follow-up safety culture/safety conscious work environment (SCWE) inspections if ordered by the regional administrator or as part of normal inspection review. Accordingly, licensees should expect additional NRC focus on safety culture in future inspections, with the potential that the NRC may identify more safety culture concerns to be addressed.

The NRC has long recognized the importance of safety culture, including SCWE, to the safe use of nuclear power. In a 2011 Statement of Policy, the NRC defined nuclear safety culture as “the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.”

As such, the NRC evaluates safety culture, including SCWE, as part of the Cross-Cutting Areas under the ROP. Plants that are in Columns 3 and 4 of the ROP Action Matrix must perform an independent safety culture assessment, with a follow-on confirmatory NRC inspection, before they can move to a lower level of oversight. The NRC’s Allegations Program often reviews concerns about discrimination involving safety culture issues, and licensees typically use tools such as an employee concerns program to identify and address potential safety culture issues. NRC inspectors also have the ability to inspect for safety culture issues.

In March 2023, an NRC staff working group from the NRR Reactor Assessment Branch issued a report to the Department of Reactor Oversight (DRO) management that summarized the results of a yearlong Safety Culture Program Effectiveness Review and provided the following recommendations to enhance the inspection process:

  1. An update to Inspection Procedure (IP) 95001, “Supplemental Inspection Response to Action Matrix Column 2 (Regulatory Response) Inputs,” authorizing “independent NRC consideration of the need” for an independent NRC safety culture assessment “if the circumstances warrant”
  2. Improving training on assessing safety culture and SCWE for NRC inspectors
  3. Revising IP 93100, “Safety Conscious Work Environment Issue of Concern Followup,” to more broadly cover all aspects of safety culture, rather than just SCWE

In a memorandum finalized almost six months later, DRO management provided NRR management with its action plan to address these recommendations; DRO indicated that it plans to immediately begin implementing these changes, with the goal of completing them by the end of the calendar year. In short, DRO management plans to implement the following:

  1. The agency will not revise IP 95001 to allow for an independent safety culture assessment by the NRC of plants in Column 2. DRO management concluded that no revision was necessary because the ROP “already requires the inspection effort to determine whether the root cause, extent of condition, and extent of cause evaluations appropriately considered the safety culture traits.” In other words, DRO management emphasized that the ROP inspection program already requires that licensees and the NRC determine if there was a safety culture component that contributed to the performance deficiencies and, if so, that appropriate steps were taken to address them. DRO management also highlighted that there was a “clear distinction in safety culture oversight” depending on which column a plant is in the ROP Action Matrix which should be maintained. However, DRO management noted that an NRC inspection team could recommend, after completing the IP 95001 inspection, that the NRC’s regional administrator perform a follow-up safety culture/SCWE inspection.
  2. The NRR will improve training for inspectors on safety culture, including leveraging support from the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research. DRO management envisioned that the improved training would include additional independent study by inspectors and revised guidance on interviewing to help specifically focus on safety culture issues.
  3. The agency will revise IP 93100 to cover all aspects of safety culture. DRO management also recommended revisions to other inspection procedures to provide flexibility tools to identify safety culture issues as part of the normal inspection process. This recommendation included DRO management’s rejection of the working group’s recommendation that safety culture assessments become a baseline inspection procedure, on the grounds that such action would go against direction from the Commission. NRR management noted that it is still evaluating whether these revisions to IP 93100 will require Commission approval or notification.
  4. The NRR will revise existing NRC assessment guidance to prompt NRC management discussions with licensees regarding any safety culture aspects identified during the regular quarterly reviews with all reactor licensees. DRO management concluded that utilizing these types of informal discussions would be likely to increase NRC engagement on safety culture issues by licensees.

In sum, the NRC has devoted significant resources over the last two years to evaluating its safety culture and SCWE inspection program. The NRC is now planning to implement its identified changes and licensees should expect increased focus from the NRC on safety culture and SCWE.

Morgan Lewis routinely counsels clients with respect to safety culture and SCWE issues and will continue to follow NRC developments in this area.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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