The NRC Office of Enforcement recently published its Enforcement Program Annual Report for calendar year 2019, revealing that the total number of enforcement actions in 2019 remained below the five-year average but increased slightly compared to 2018. Notwithstanding the modest increase in enforcement actions, the report also highlights the NRC’s continuing focus on investigating and taking enforcement action in response to licensee and individual misconduct, including retaliation against workers for raising nuclear safety concerns. In this regard, the NRC issued 57 escalated enforcement actions in 2019, a 27% increase from 2018.
Escalated enforcement actions include any notices of violation (NOVs) of Severity Level III or higher issued to a licensee, NOVs associated with a red, yellow, or white finding under the NRC’s significance determination process (SDP), civil penalty actions, and enforcement orders, including confirmatory orders.
Sorting the escalated enforcement actions issued in 2019 by the type of licensee, 34 actions, or almost 60%, were issued to nuclear material licenses. That the majority of escalated enforcement actions issued to materials licensees is consistent with recent trends. As for reactor licensees, 18 of the 57 escalated enforcement actions were issued to operating reactors, with a single violation issued to the only new reactor, and two to decommissioning sites. Two escalated enforcement actions were issued to fuel facilities.
Of the total of 57 enforcement actions, 13 actions included civil penalties—10 issued with NOVs and 3 issued with orders. The penalties consisted of 10 proposed penalties totaling $634,250, and 3 imposed penalties totaling $101,500. Six of the penalties involved “willful” violations—violations involving “deliberate” misconduct or “careless disregard” toward NRC regulations or procedures. These are noteworthy because the NRC “relies on licensees and their contractors, employees, and agents [to] act with integrity and . . . candor.”
According to the report, the NRC Office of Investigations (OI) was involved in 56% (32 of 57) of the escalated enforcement actions that were issued. This is roughly 36% higher than the percentage of cases that the OI investigated in 2018, which resulted in escalated enforcement. Interestingly, the report provides (without identifying the specific actions) that enforcement action may not have been taken in all cases the OI substantiated. Nor does the report identify cases that the OI did not substantiate but in which enforcement action was taken. Although it is not identified in the report, escalated enforcement in at least one such case was taken in 2019.
The NRC report also highlights “significant cases that required extensive coordination and cooperation with stakeholders.” This year the cases include a civil penalty for $43,500 issued to a materials licensee for “willful distribution of gun sights containing radioactive material” without complying with NRC requirements, including importing radioactive material without a license. They also include an action against a power reactor licensee for retaliation against a contract employee for engaging in protected activities, and escalated enforcement against a power reactor licensee for failure to provide redundant drop protection during spent fuel storage loading activities and failure to timely notify the NRC of an event.