Inspector General Report on Spent Fuel Pools Makes Recommendations To Improve Oversight

Stephen Dingbaum
Assistant Inspector General for Audits

oigAn Office of the Inspector General audit regarding the NRC’s oversight of spent fuel pools is now available here. The audit set out to determine if the NRC’s oversight of spent fuel pools — and the nuclear fuel they hold — provides adequate protection for public health and safety, and the environment.

The NRC is responsible for developing the regulatory framework, analytical tools, and data needed to ensure safe and secure storage, transportation, and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. In the U.S. today, there are 93 spent fuel pools currently storing spent fuel. Recent NRC staff studies demonstrating the safety of spent fuel pools and the safety of continued storage of spent fuel at reactor sites highlight the need to make sure the pools operate safely for longer periods than originally envisioned.

The OIG found the NRC does provide adequate oversight of spent fuel pools and the fuel they contain, but opportunities exist for improvement. Specifically, we found that regulatory uncertainty exists in the NRC’s evaluation of the analytical methods used to prevent a chain reaction in the spent fuel pools. In addition, there are gaps in NRC’s spent fuel pool inspection program as inspections of spent fuel pools greatly vary between licensee sites and are limited in scope.

As part of its mission, the NRC must inspect and assess licensee operations and facilities to ensure compliance with its regulatory requirements. The NRC should also regulate in a manner that clearly communicates requirements and ensures regulations are consistently applied and practical. The OIG believes an absence of effective spent fuel pool guidance for both licensees and NRC staff may reduce program efficiency and effectiveness.

The report makes four specific recommendations to improve NRC oversight, including developing and issuing new guidance for licensees and developing new NRC inspection procedures. NRC management stated their general agreement with the findings and recommendations.


IMPEP — Evaluating the NRC’s Radioactive Materials Program

David Spackman
Health Physicist

For the NRC and each of the 37 states that regulate radioactive materials under agreements with us, a time comes every few years when we start talking about “IMPEP.” The acronym is spoken about as frequently as the top 10 new words added to Webster’s Dictionary every year – that is to say a lot.

IMPEP may be very easy to say, but understanding its true value requires a closer look.

IMPEP stands for the Integrated Materials Performance Evaluation Program. Think of it like an audit. It is the NRC’s primary tool for assessing how well radioactive materials programs are agreementstatenesperforming. Every Agreement State and NRC program is evaluated under IMPEP every four to five years. A rotating team of experts from the Agreement States and the NRC do the reviews. The teams focus on specific areas of a radioactive materials program that have the potential to affect public health and safety. The reviews are very detailed, typically lasting a full week.

Once an IMPEP review team has looked at everything they need to see on-site, they document their findings. They write a report and recommend a “grade” on the program’s performance to the Management Review Board, which is comprised of senior NRC managers and a state program manager who keeps in touch with the other Agreement States. The board holds a public meeting to talk about what the team saw and assigns the overall program rating: “Satisfactory,” “Satisfactory but Needs Improvement,” or “Unsatisfactory.”

Recently it was the NRC’s turn to undergo an IMPEP review. From Dec. 8-11, a team of experts from Ohio, Tennessee, and the NRC reviewed the NRC’s Sealed Source and Device (SS&D) Evaluation Program. This program performs engineering and radiation safety evaluations of sealed radioactive sources and the devices that use them.

Sealed sources are just what the name says—radioactive sources sealed in a capsule to prevent leakage or escape of the material. The devices are used for many things, but generally they measure something, such as soil density, fluid levels, the thickness of a pipe, and whether metal and welds are sound. They can also help to map geologic formations from inside a gas or oil well. The NRC needs to do adequate technical evaluations of SS&D designs to ensure they’ll maintain their integrity and their designs are adequate to protect public health and safety.

During the four-day IMPEP review at NRC Headquarters, the team looked at the NRC program’s technical quality, staffing and training, and any defects or incidents involving SS&Ds. Most of the work was done through in-depth staff interviews and targeted document reviews. S

Since finishing the evaluation in mid-December, the team has drafted their report. They expect to recommend to the board that the NRC’s SS&D program be rated Satisfactory – the highest possible rating. Furthermore the review team commended NRC staff for performing very competent technical SS&D reviews. Although this is an excellent result so far, there is still one more important step to complete the IMPEP review process – the public meeting.

This meeting allows the review team to present its findings and formally recommend the overall program rating. While the structure of these meetings is simple, it is very common to see a spirited discussion of the strengths, weaknesses, innovations and shortcomings of the program under review.

This is where the true value of IMPEP is laid bare. If all goes right, the end result is improving a program’s ability to protect public health and safety and the environment – even if the program gets the highest rating.

The MRB’s public meeting to discuss NRC’s SS&D program will be held at NRC Headquarters in Rockville, Md., on March 5, 2015. The meeting details are available on the NRC website at We encourage members of the public to come or listen in by phone.