Supporting the Nuclear Front Line

February 24, 2015 | 6:00 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit  #49

NEAT #31 described the NRC’s resident inspectors assigned full-time to each operating nuclear plant as representing the first-line of defenders of nuclear safety. The commentary also cited results from a recent survey by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General revealing that only about half felt that they receive adequate support in performing their duties.

The NRC is responding to the Inspector General’s audit findings. The Inspector General recommended that the NRC develop formal methods for obtaining perspectives from the resident inspectors about support issues. The NRC has already undertaken some steps and plans additional steps to implement this recommendation. For example, the NRC has an internal SharePoint website and an annual reactor oversight process self-assessment process that will be expanded to solicit resident inspector feedback about their support. The NRC established a June 30, 2015, deadline for completing its actions responsive to this Inspector General’s recommendation.

In addition, the NRC’s Division of Operating Reactor Licensing—a principle support mechanism for the resident inspectors—conducted staff meetings in June 2014 and January 2015 that reinforced expectations on interfacing with the resident inspectors.

Bottom Line

One of my pet peeves involves the search for leading indicators of nuclear safety problems. Law enforcement officers do not arrest people who have beady eyes or exhibit anti-social tendencies because some people with similar traits in the past have committed crimes. Searching for leading indicators of nuclear safety problems is like Monty Python’s quest for the Holy Grail, only far less amusing.

The Inspector General’s audit and the NRC’s response illustrate the better approach—the least lagging indicator of nuclear safety problems. The Inspector General’s audit revealed a minor problem. It had not yet grown to epidemic proportions, crippling the agency’s oversight ability and/or factoring into a nuclear accident. But the minor problem identified by the Inspector General represented a step or two along the path to such undesired destinations.

The NRC did not reject or dismiss the Inspector General’s audit findings using the “no blood, no foul” or equally lame excuse. Instead, the NRC recognized the matter as a genuine problem and took steps to remedy it.

Finding a problem at the earliest opportunity and effectively resolving it in a timely manner is a tried and true way to compile a good nuclear safety record. The NRC and its Inspector General deserve credit for finding and fixing this problem long before it got a chance to fester into a bigger one.


The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.