Reexamining the NRC’s Regulatory Framework

Mike Johnson
Deputy Executive Director for Reactor and Preparedness Programs

The NRC’s spent more than two years examining what changes to its regulations we should make based on lessons from the Fukushima accident in March 2011. After lots of public discussion and considering the options offered during that time, the NRC staff has made recommendations to the agency’s five Commissioners for their consideration.

How we Regulate_onlyThis process started shortly after the accident, when the NRC gathered several senior staff to consider what the accident taught us. This task force’s July 2011 report included 12 broad recommendations. The first recommendation called for “a logical, systematic, and coherent regulatory framework for adequate protection that appropriately balances defense-in-depth and risk considerations.” The Commission directed the staff in August 2011 to evaluate that recommendation and provide options for responding.

Since then the staff has met with the public and other interested parties three times. The staff also released three white papers and met with the independent experts on the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards six times. The staff for this effort included experts in reactor regulation, risk assessment, materials oversight, security, research and the legal aspects of revising NRC rules.

The staff concluded the NRC’s current regulations can maintain U.S. nuclear power plant safety and incorporate Fukushima-related improvements. But the staff recommends these three enhancements:

1. Establish a new category for certain events that could extend current requirements 

2. Establish Commission expectations for establishing multiple layers of defense against accidents and to protect public health

3. Clarify the role of voluntary industry initiatives in the NRC regulatory process

The Commission will decide which recommendations, if any, to implement. The Commission will meet publicly to discuss the staff’s work on Jan. 10, 2014. The meeting will be webcast for those unable to attend in person.

More information on the NRC’s overall post-Fukushima efforts is available here.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

23 thoughts on “Reexamining the NRC’s Regulatory Framework”

  1. Whether or not a nuclear power plant is licensed is a political public relations decision. The NRC just like all other government agencies does not operate in a vacuum with autonomy.

    Congress, the president along with the media and public opinion controls the licensing of nuclear power plants.

    At the highest level, the NRC Commissioner is a political appointment. One political party has a base of supporters that are opposed to both nuclear and fossil fuel energy. Therefore, license approval is dependent on which party is in power. It is that party that sets the policy of the NRC.

    The party that is in favor of nuclear energy only controlled both houses of congress for 10 years the party that is opposed to nuclear power controlled congress for more than a half a century.

    There are currently 4 new reactors under construction (VC Summer and Votgel units 3 & 4). These plants has construction permits but it remains to be seen if they will be completed and licensed to operate.

    I believe the cost overruns will prevent completion.

    As far as the concept “too cheap to meter” is concerned, I have been in the nuclear power industry continuously for 44 years. We started the Oyster Creek Plant (650 MWE) December 1969. The first two years of operation the plant produced electricity at an astoundingly low cost.

    We generated electricity for one thirtieth (1/30) the cost of our fossil plants that burned oil at a cost of $2.60 per barrel. That’s right, an equivalent cost of less that one penny per barrel of oil, not less than one penny per barrel.

    This was indeed “too cheap to meter”. Since then there have been several catastrophes. Only one of which was in the United States (Three Mile Island). Three Mile Island is not even remotely analogous to the other accidents in either causes or results.

    The fact is nuclear power could be once again too cheap to meter. Especially if Jimmy Carter did not kill the clinch river project. Testing at EBR 2 proved that the breeder reactor program was inherently safer that the reactors that are operating today. His decision clearly illustrates that it is the politicians and not the NRC that has final say over the nuclear power industry including licensing.

  2. These comments have gotten “off topic” for this blog post. If you have questions specific to Fort Calhoun, or any other questions for the NRC on other matters, please submit them to and we’ll get responses back to you directly.


  3. Units 1 and 2 at the D.C. Cook nuclear power plant were in the Chapter 0350 process from the third quarter of 1998 until the first quarter of 2000. Davis-Besse was in the Chapter 0350 process from the second quarter of 2002 until the second quarter of 2005.

    Scott Burnell

  4. My last question is a hard one to answer. If you don’t know, you don’t know. If you do know I am sure you would tell us. (:-) However, you certainly can take steps to find out if you can answer the first question with a “yes”.

  5. Mr Moderator would you provide some information for me?
    I know the date that the Fort Calhoun Station was placed on NRC Inspection Manual Chapter 0350, i.e. December 13, 2011, and if I am correct they will continue to be on enhanced inspection for the foreseeable future. I believe there have been other nuclear power plants that were once on a Chapter 0350 program. I think one example was Davis Besse. Would you provide a list of those plants and the dates they were placed on 0350 and the dates they were removed from enhanced oversight?

  6. Mr Moderator let’s, as they say, “cut to the chase”
    It has taken almost 3 years for the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station to climb out of the performance hole they were in. They worked painstakingly to correct a large number of process, program, equipment, and management issues.
    It has been a little over 2 years since the NRC placed the plant on an enhanced inspection program per NRC Inspection Manual Chapter 0350.
    Mr Moderator can you provide me with any evidence that the following two questions were posed and addressed by the Commission?
    o Is there anything that the NRC could have done differently or better to have prevented one of our nation’s nuclear power plants from getting into such a degraded state?
    o And, are there any other nuclear plants that are similarly degraded that the NRC does not know about?

    Ever since the NRC added the violation categories of “minor violation” and NCV (Non-cited Violation), there has been a large reduction in the number of violations that require a formal response from nuclear plant licensees. The jury is still out on whether this change has really enhanced nuclear safety. It certainly reduced the paperwork load on licensees. Now licensees only have to respond in writing to those violations that are considered to be of other than “very low safety significance”. In the case of Fort Calhoun Station this amounted to having to respond to only 10 violations in 16 years. Of these 10 violations the licensee reported 8 of those violations to the NRC. The NRC only found 2 violations that required a written response.
    Since there are far fewer required formal violation responses, the NRC should expect those responses to be “top drawer”. However, the NRC has never changed its violation response expectations. The same response format has been used for decades. It is as follows:
    • Reason for the violation
    • Corrective steps taken and the results achieved
    • Corrective steps that will be taken
    • Date when full compliance will be achieved

    The first bullet is the one that is woefully inadequate in my opinion. It does not require that the licensee address the following when coming up with the “reason for the violation”:
    o The results of a root cause or causal analysis.
    o The results of an extent of condition analysis, i.e. the extent to which the same condition exists with other plant processes, equipment, computer software, or human performance.
    o The extent of cause analysis, i.e. the extent to which the root cause(s) of the violation have impacted other processes, equipment, software, or human performance.
    o The common cause analysis, i.e. an analysis associated with a situation where a number of like or similar events have occurred. Especially important in cases where there have been repetitive failures.
    These tools are used in the nuclear industry and the results should be provided to the NRC as soon as they are available.
    Good plants already do this as a regular part of their corrective action programs. There would be little extra burden on licensees to do so.

  8. A friend of mine remarked that the NRC is like a few volunteer fire departments. That is they get there in time to put water on the ashes!

    The NRC only gets down on nuclear plants if they have significant operational screw-ups. They never get down on these plants through their own regulatory inspections. Why? Because they don’t find problems through those NRC inspections. The NRC only found two problems at the problematic Fort Calhoun Station in 16 years. It took a serious fire at the plant to get their attention in 2011. Just prior to that in late 2010 the NRC did find one of those two problems through its inspection program that was a serious finding. A whole host of problems were found at the plant by Fort Calhoun personnel once the NRC finally got on them. The point is the NRC inspection program is seriously flawed and reactive. They only get interested if there are obvious plant performance problems that result in significant safety issues. As one blog commenter so aptly said, they get on a plant after the cow is out of the barn. As a typical federal agency, the NRC does not ever accept responsibility for their actions or inactions. That is the real scary part. They therefore never seek ways to improve their regulatory effectiveness. The public is not well served by such an attitude and mind-set.

  10. I don’t know why your browser doesn’t like that email address. You can try sending your email to instead. Please Put Forward to Exec Sec in the subject line and it will get forwarded.


  11. Mr. Moderator, I have been unable to get through to the NRC Exec Sec link you provided. My browser tells me that the link is a “suspected phishing site”.
    Can you help?

  12. Thanks for your prompt response and all the additional information you provided. From that information I determined the following:
    • The NRC conducted over 160 inspections of the Fort Calhoun Station over about 16 years (about 10 inspections/year).
    • Only ten violations of NRC requirements were cited during that entire time.
    • Five of the cited violations were so-called “White” findings, which are those of the lowest category of safety significance.
    • Three of the violations cited in the late ‘90s were of the highest category of safety significance. Two of these violations were assessed civil penalties.
    • Of the ten violations, the NRC only identified two through their inspection effort. All the rest were identified and reported to the NRC by Fort Calhoun management. These were self-revealing violations due to equipment malfunction and in one case, a fire.
    • To their credit the NRC identified one violation that prevented a major accident at the plant. The NRC found that one of the flood protection measures at the site was inadequate. As a result of that finding the Fort Calhoun staff found a number of additional flood protection deficiencies at the site. Corrective measures were taken allowing the plant to withstand a severe Missouri River flooding incident in early 2011.
    I draw the following conclusions from the above.
    The NRC identified only two violations through their inspection efforts over a 16-year period. This is an average of one NRC-identified violation per 80 inspections at the site.
    The NRC inspection effort did not result in the identification of any of the many program and process deficiencies later found by the licensee.
    My previous comments stand as written. In spite of evidence to the contrary, the NRC will not admit to any culpability in the problems at Fort Calhoun. This is sad and makes me very concerned that the NRC is really not doing its job of protecting the public.

  13. “..too cheap to meter…”..haha…I remember that
    it IS ironic that the old AEC was disassembled into ERDA and NRC (ERDA was later incorporated into DOE) to separate the promotion of nuclear power from the regulation of nuclear energy. And in reality (in today’s world) the nuclear industry literally pays the salary of the people reviewing their applications. Guess what…not too many applications are denied….they are strung out though… for an extensive (costly) review process…requiring many manhours

  14. Rich is a genius and very observant. Decades of an insider observing the NRC and all the enablers of nuclear power, allows me to say he is exactly right. This is like the SEC regulating Wall Street just before the Great Recession.

  15. Many of the issues that led to the NRC invoking the Chapter 0350 process at Fort Calhoun were properly identified long before the December 2011 decision, as shown in the list of significant enforcement actions the NRC has taken regarding the plant: and several years of inspection reports: . The Reactor Oversight Process properly placed Fort Calhoun in the agency’s second-highest level of increased oversight before the 0350 decision was made.

    As we’ve noted in the blog’s Comment Guidelines, comments are not formal communication with the NRC. So if you have comments or issues for the Commission to consider, please send them to: .

    Scott Burnell

  16. Yes, they have become the proponents of nuclear, just like the now ineffective AEC of years gone past when atomic energy was too cheap to meter.

  17. The NRC’s biggest problem is that they investigate after the cow is out of the barn. They need to think ahead and listen to the critics.

  18. INPO as well as the NRC should be faulted for being AWOL
    Yes I am replying to myself. Yes the licensee, OPPD and the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station are to blame for allowing their plant’s performance to grossly degrade over time. But as I have tried to indicate in my previous blog, the NRC is to blame as well. BTW, while passing out blame, where was INPO?!
    The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations was the nuclear industry’s initiative to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability at US nuclear plants. It was formed after the accident at TMI and, among other things, conducts periodic evaluations at all nuclear plants. Where was INPO when it came to pointing out the serious, long-term problems at the Fort Calhoun Station? Finding out where INPO went wrong is much harder to do because of the secret way they conduct their evaluations. Their evaluation reports are confidential and are not released to the public like NRC inspection reports. Therefore it is hard to determine just what they might have pointed out relative to the serious performance problems at Fort Calhoun. Whatever INPO did it was not nearly enough. The NRC assessed itself and I do not know if INPO has done any real assessments of its operation. Both organizations depend on the survival of the nuclear industry for their very existence so how critical can they be expected to be of their own operations. A long overdue, serious, independent review is in order for both the NRC and INPO. Unfortunately the chances of that happening are slim to none.

  19. To be fair I should come up with a constructive item that the NRC’s self-assessment should have addressed. I have a real substantive item that should be added to the existing list of only three lame NRC “enhancements”. Here it is…
    An Real NRC “Enhancement”
    Why did the NRC’s existing regulatory framework not detect performance problems at the Fort Calhoun Station well before those performance problems were self-revealing incidents and near misses? It has taken nearly three years for the problems at this plant to be completely addressed and corrected, almost as long as it took the plant to startup initially. In reviewing the huge list of problems at the plant I was hard pressed to find a program or process at the plant that was not found to be seriously flawed. Where was the NRC?!
    The NRC conducts numerous inspections, has a whole host of performance indicators, and two full-time inspectors at each nuclear site and yet long-term, pervasive, performance problems were not identified well before incidents and an historic Missouri River flood occurred at the plant in early 2011. In December 2011 the NRC finally decided that the plant deserved special treatment because of significant performance problems and significant operational events. When the NRC has to invoke enhanced inspection (under Inspection Manual Chapter 0350) it should be considered as a gross failure of the regulatory process. Unfortunately, Fort Calhoun is not the first plant to be so classified. I ask the NRC Commissioners to require that the Commission do an independent evaluation of their regulatory process and performance, one that is focused on uncovering real problems.

  20. @Rich Andrews
    you hit the nail on the head…I happen to admire the professionalism and competence of the NRC staff…but truth be told….they are paid to make nuclear licensing happen….

  21. The NRC came up with only three very nebulous areas for “enhancements”. Otherwise it was stated that NRC’s “current regulations” can maintain nuke plant safety, i.e. the status quo.
    Not once mentioned is the fact that the NRC itself is really not an independent agency. The NRC relies on the success of the nuclear industry for its very survival. The NRC is like the parasite attached to a shark. The parasite must rely on the shark for its very existence. Unlike the EPA who over regulates and kills our economy, the NRC is just the opposite. Significant safety and national security issues that would really hammer the nuke industry are minimized and sugarcoated. The NRC does not want to throw out the nuke baby with the bath water. No wonder the NRC comes up with such lame recommendations when it performs an incestuous review of its own operation.

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