WASHINGTON—Citing a "widening disconnect" between the improved safety performance of nuclear power plants and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's enforcement actions, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) is calling on the agency to reinvent its enforcement policy.
In comments filed yesterday with the Commission, NEI urged that enforcement policy changes take place within the context of a broader regulatory regime that is risk-informed, objective and consistently applied. The industry's policy organization also said that, as the NRC contemplates changes that may yield a new regulatory paradigm, it is "of the utmost importance" that the agency base its enforcement actions on the actual safety significance of the issue or event involved.
"Tying enforcement actions to these same principles of good regulation ultimately will result in a significantly more effective and efficient enforcement program," NEI stated. "The industry believes that the NRC, guided by its Enforcement Policy, has focused too much on strict compliance and diluted the focus on safety."
The Institute said that companies operating nuclear power plants are finding it necessary to allocate significant resources to address an excessive number of issues that the NRC processes through the enforcement system. In 1997, for example, 94 percent of the total industry violations issued by the NRC were Severity Level IV violations—those determined to have low safety significance.
Meanwhile, the steady, consistent improvement in safety performance that the industry has achieved over the past decade continues. Just three weeks ago, reports surfaced of a major NRC study showing that "initiating events" at nuclear power plants decreased threefold between 1987 and 1995, with the most risk-significant events declining at an even faster rate. Initiating events are occurrences that result in actuation of plant safety systems.
NEI said in its filing that this disconnect between the industry's safety performance and NRC enforcement actions adversely affects the agency's staff, companies operating nuclear power plants and the public, which may be unnecessarily alarmed by news coverage of enforcement actions.
The Institute said the subjective nature of the existing enforcement process is a major concern. The subjective judgments that permeate the NRC system "have a dramatic impact on whether the agency will take enforcement action, the severity level assigned to a violation, the civil penalty amount proposed, and the acceptability of proposed corrective actions." Adherence to a risk-informed, objective regulatory and enforcement policy would greatly improve the system not only by eliminating subjectivity but also by helping the agency explain the significance of violations to the general public.
"For any violation to be worthy of pursuit through the enforcement process, the staff should have first determined that the violation is safety-significant, based on actual consequences or risk significance."
NEI called on the Commission to consider risk-based enforcement features from programs implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as part of a broad review of its enforcement process. "FAA and OSHA have taken relatively aggressive steps to change their enforcement policies to incorporate various cooperative programs. The FAA and OSHA cooperative enforcement and inspection programs are based on the sound concept that public health and safety will be enhanced by providing incentives to restore compliance when violations are found."
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.