Channeling da Vinci: The Competition to Create the NRC Seal

U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry seal designs

When it comes to creating a seal, most federal agencies keep it simple: show what you do. The Forest Service: A pine tree. The Bureau of Reclamation: A lake. The Federal Communications Commission: Telephone lines. It’s usually not complicated. But for the NRC, the eagle-centered seal reflected the controversies that caused its creation out of the former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Even before the NRC opened its doors on January 19, 1975, the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry produced a number of seal options for the agency. The Institute’s key symbols were the atom to represent nuclear R&D and five pointed stars or similar figures to represent the five Commissioners, and usually had a circle to “symbolize complete control for peaceful purposes.” AEC counsel Marcus Rowden, soon to be one the NRC’s first five commissioners, was “somewhat underwhelmed” by the choices and suggested soliciting employee submissions.

In early 1975, employees, family members, and contractors submitted about 70 designs. While some employees simply wanted the old AEC seal superimposed with the new agency name, others were unconventional, including one attempt at Leonardo da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man. Many reveal what the first NRC employees imagined their agency should be by using symbols depicting a broad agency mission of public safety, environmental protection, and fairness in the regulatory process. A selection committee picked a number of finalists and sent them to the Commission.

The Vitruvian Man design option

But none of the finalists got the nod. The NRC was created in part because of the perception that the AEC favored promoting nuclear power over ensuring its safety. The AEC’s seal had prominently displayed an atom at its center. Any submission that reminded the public too much of the NRC’s link to the AEC was a non-starter.

Additionally, some NRC retirees recall that federal agencies questioned whether the NRC, a regulatory agency with considerable independence, could represent the federal government on export licensing issues. It seems that the agency needed a seal that broke with its past but clearly linked it to the federal government.

The Commission opted for a bald eagle featured on the seals of the President and several agencies. Benjamin Huberman, the director of the Office of Policy Evaluation, put his engineering drafting skills to work. He pulled a dollar bill out of his wallet and used its eagle as a model. He eliminated the dollar’s cluster of 13 stars, as well as the ribbon clutched in its beak. He added the NRC’s name and five stars to represent the agency’s five Commissioners. It was approved.

The NRC’s selection of a seal reflects a regulatory agency seeking to distance itself from a promotional past while also clarifying its new place firmly within the federal government.

Tom Wellock, NRC Historian

Putting Security Back into the Reactor Oversight Process Assessment Program

The NRC assesses the safety of all 104 nuclear reactors in this country by looking closely at seven different safety “cornerstones.” These are the fundamentals of nuclear plant safety such as “public radiation safety,” and “barrier integrity.” The severity of any performance issue is assessed using a color-coded system as part of the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process (ROP).

However, for the past 10 years or so, the NRC assessed nuclear plant security using a separate oversight process. The NRC made the separation shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to limit the possibility that anyone could extrapolate potential protective-measure vulnerabilities at its licensed facilities. The NRC has since enhanced security requirements.

In June, 2011, the staff submitted a paper, SECY-11-0073, to the Commission seeking approval of a proposal to reintegrate nuclear plant security into the existing ROP. This will achieve a more integrated assessment of licensee performance. On July 20, 2011, the Commission approved the staff’s proposal.

So what does this mean? It means that experts in safety and experts in security are working together now to implement this reintegration and are updating the Inspection Manuals used by the staff. The goal is to complete these by July 2012. The NRC will communicate the changes to licensees, through a Regulatory Issue Summary, to provide them with the implementation plan and effective date.

The staff will continue to issue security inspection reports and letters for security findings in the same manner as today, except instead of separate assessment letters for safety and security, they will be combined into a single letter issued every six months. As is already the case, sensitive security-related information will not be contained in the public version of the assessment letters.

The public website will be revised to include security cornerstone assessment inputs, but with a different color scheme than used for safety violations. For example, the color blue will signify a greater-than-green (white, yellow, or red) security input.

When the website is updated to reflect reintegration, plants with pre-existing security issues will appear to shift in the ROP Action Matrix. In all cases, the NRC will have already identified the input under the security assessment process and will be in various states of planning, performing, or completing the NRC’s response and inspection for those issues.

The reintegration of security and safety is important because it will allow the NRC to achieve a more integrated assessment of licensee performance and make the integrated assessment information available to the public. However, that does not mean that details about security will be made publicly available. The NRC will continue to protect security-related information so that it cannot be used by potential adversaries.

Kevin Roche
Reactor Operations Engineer
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