The NRC staff recently provided the Commission with their annual Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) Self-Assessment for Calendar Year 2021 (SECY-22-0029). These annual self-assessments have been part of the ROP since the ROP was implemented in 2000 and are used by the Commission, the NRC staff, and stakeholders to monitor the performance of the ROP and identify areas for improvement.
In summary, the NRC staff found that the ROP continues to ensure the safe operation of nuclear plants and compliance with NRC regulations, but they did identify several areas for potential improvements. Unsurprisingly, the most negative assessment findings related to COVID-19 travel restrictions which impacted NRC resident inspectors from traveling to regulated sites and the ability of NRC staff to maintain qualifications. The staff also identified potential improvements to the ROP that are either being implemented already or are being developed and will be presented to the Commission later this year. Below is an overview of the ROP and the annual assessment process, its findings, and the NRC staff’s planned 2022 activities related to the ROP.
Background on the ROP and Annual Self-Assessment Elements
The NRC implemented the ROP in 2000 and is the NRC's primary means of ensuring that commercial nuclear power plants are operated safely, securely, and in accordance with applicable regulations. The ROP collects information about licensee performance, assesses the information for its safety significance, and directs appropriate licensee and NRC response. Although the Commission only directed the NRC staff to report on ROP results from the first year of implementation, the NRC staff committed to provide the Commission with annual self-assessments going forward.
The NRC staff developed Inspection Manual Chapter 0307 (IMC 0307) to guide their self-assessments of the ROP. Under IMC 0307, ROP self-assessments consist of three elements: (1) measuring regional and headquarters program effectiveness and uniformity in implementing the ROP; (2) assessing the effectiveness of recent ROP changes and of NRC’s response to significant licensee events or declining performance; and (3) a focused assessment of specific ROP program areas, such as the baseline inspection program.
For element 1, the NRC staff assess the implementation of the ROP program using 18 measurable performance metrics aligned with a specific Principle of Good Regulation (independence, openness, efficiency, clarity, or reliability). Each metric has preestablished performance thresholds that categorize performance as either green, yellow, or red, similar to those colors applied to licensee performance indicators under the ROP. If a metric is green, it meets or exceeds expected performance; if yellow, it warrants further evaluation and potential NRC staff action to correct; and, if red, it represents unexpected performance and warrants further evaluation and likely NRC staff action to address the cause.
For element 2, the NRC staff conduct an effectiveness review to ensure that any ROP changes had the intended results and evaluates any unintended consequences. For element 3, the NRC staff conduct a triennial assessment of the baseline inspection program. The 2021 report served as the triennial assessment. The NRC staff will conduct its next triennial assessment in 2024.
Results from the 2021 Self-Assessment
For element 1, the NRC staff evaluated the 18 performance metrics and assigned 13 of them a green finding, two a yellow finding, and three a red finding. The three red metrics in 2021 were also red in the 2020 self-assessment “primarily due to the impacts of the COVID-19” public health emergency. These three red metrics included the following:
- “Resident Inspector Objectivity through Diverse Experience,” which measures whether a resident inspector spends at least one week per year inspecting a reactor site other than the one the resident is assigned to. In CY 2021, nearly a third of the resident inspectors could not meet this metric because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions.
- “Inspector Objectivity and Performance Reviews,” which measures whether line managers perform annual objectivity reviews of each fully qualified inspector in an inspection branch. In CY 2021, 38 of 300 qualified inspectors did not have an annual objectivity review, mainly because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions.
- “Fully Qualified Inspectors, Examiners and Senior Risk Analysts,” which measures whether NRC staff members remain fully qualified inspectors. The assessment found that all four NRC regions had significant numbers of employees who did not complete required refresher training due to COVID-19-related training cancellations and travel restrictions.
Although these metrics were red for 2021, the NRC staff anticipates these metrics to return to green after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends.
As noted, the NRC staff also assigned two metrics a yellow finding. The first, “SDP Completion Timeliness for Potentially Greater-than-Green Findings” measures whether potentially greater-than-green findings have a final significance determination issued within 255 days from identification. In 2021, the NRC staff issued three findings, two of which exceeded the 255-day goal. This was the second straight year that this metric was yellow, even though the NRC staff had revised the relevant IMC chapter (IMC 0609, Attachment 1) in 2021 to help improve review times and address a 2016 Office of Inspector General audit.
The second yellow finding was for the “Maintenance of ROP Governance Documents,” which measures the percentage of ROP governance documents that have been reviewed in the last five years. At the end of 2021, 188 of the 232 documents had been issued in the last five years, while 29 documents are undergoing revision, leaving 15 documents that have not been reviewed in the last five years. Twelve of these 15 documents relate to engineering and emergency preparedness inspection areas for which, as discussed below, the NRC staff had recommended significant changes to the Commission, and then withdrew before receiving Commission approval.
For element 2, the NRC staff reviewed the effectiveness of the Degraded Performance column (column 3) of the ROP Action Matrix—specifically, the criteria for entering this column, which NRC staff changed in December 2015. The NRC staff concluded that the 2015 change had no adverse impact on safety. The NRC staff also performed an effectiveness review of the Very Low Safety Significance Issue Resolution (VLSSIR) process, which was implemented in January 2020, and concluded that the VLSSIR process is working as intended and provided a predictable framework to review, assess, and disposition issues of very low safety significance.
Finally, for element 3, the NRC staff conducted a comprehensive review of the baseline inspection program. For this review, the NRC staff focused on possible revisions to the inspection program should another public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic occur, or if other circumstances limited inspector access to licensed facilities. The NRC staff recommended revising inspection guidance in IMC 2515, Appendix E to provide inspectors with the opportunity to credit the review of digital media such as streaming and recorded video and photographs in lieu of direct observations.
Other Assessment Findings
The NRC staff has been tracking a declining trend in green ROP inspection findings at reactor sites over the past several years as the average number of green findings decreased by 1.5 findings per site each year from 2015 to 2020. This trend reversed in 2021, where the number of green findings per site (5.2) increased from 2020 (4.4), but the overall number of green findings remained near historic lows. The NRC staff’s analysis determined that a general factor underlying this trend is the shift over time to emphasize risk in the inspection process, particularly in screening identified issues, which may have led to some issues being screened as not risk significant enough to warrant a green finding or other issues being screened as greater-than green.
NRC Staff’s Plan to Resubmit ROP Improvements for Commission Approval
As we reported before, in August 2021, the NRC staff requested, and the Commission approved, the withdrawal of two SECY papers recommending improvements to the ROP engineering process (SECY-18-0113) and enhancements to the ROP (SECY-19-0067). According to the NRC staff, the basis for the withdrawal was to consider new information and additional NRC staff activities that were relevant to, but not considered, in developing the recommendations in those papers. In the 2021 ROP Assessment, the NRC staff announced that it “is aligned on a plan to return the recommendations in these withdrawn papers back to the Commission” before the end of September 2022. As detailed in the ROP assessment and a public meeting, the NRC staff will recommend changes to: (1) the frequency of engineering inspections; (2) revisions to the emergency preparedness significance determination process; (3) eliminating the requirement for inspection findings to remain ROP Action Matrix inputs for four full quarters; and (4) revising the treatment of Greater-than-Green performance indicators.
NRC Self-Assessment Activities for 2022
The NRC has several ROP self-assessment activities planned for 2022 that will be reported on in the next annual report. These activities will include: (1) reviewing significance determination process timeliness, which has been a yellow finding for two years and led to revised guidance; (2) performing an ROP implementation audit of Region I (the NRC typically reviews regional and headquarter performance on a rotating basis in the annual reports); (3) performing an effectiveness review of incorporating safety culture oversight into the ROP under element 2; and (4) reviewing a recent Office of Inspector General report on the NRC’s oversight of the auxiliary feedwater system at Diablo Canyon.
The NRC staff’s assessment found that the ROP continues to meet its objectives of providing effective oversight of operating reactors by being objective, risk-informed, understandable, and predictable, and the industry’s performance as measured by the ROP remains strong. The NRC staff states that it remains committed to engagement with the industry and other stakeholders on the ROP program and looks for ways for it to be improved. Several of the findings in the ROP self-assessment suggest that the NRC’s implementation bears careful scrutiny from stakeholders to ensure that the benefits from the ROP do not overburden industry.
Morgan Lewis regularly counsels licensees on responding to ROP findings and any resulting enforcement actions and will continue to closely follow developments in this area.