Up & Atom


Morgan Lewis routinely assists licensees in connection with NRC allegations, investigations, and enforcement. The following are summaries of trends and findings in the NRC’s 2023 Allegation Program Annual Trends Report and Enforcement Program Annual Report.

Annual Trends Report

The NRC recently issued its Allegation Program Annual Trends Report analyzing regional, national, and site-specific allegation trends for calendar year 2023. The report discusses NRC staff activity related to the NRC Allegation Program, which deals with concerns associated with NRC requirements and potential wrongdoing by individuals or organizations licensed by the NRC, applicants for licenses, licensee contractors or vendors, or employees of any of the above. According to the report, allegations increased approximately 15% from 2022, spanning reactor and materials licensees as well as their vendors. The increase resulted in a volume not seen since 2018 and continues the trend of year-over-year increases in allegations that began in 2021 following a five-year period of declining allegations from 2016 through 2020.

Generally, an allegation may represent one to three “concerns.” The number of concerns in 2023 increased 25% since 2022.

Reactor Licensee Trends

The highest percentage of reactor licensee allegations were in the “chilling effect” functional area, consistent with recent years. The number of chilling effect allegations increased 39% over 2022 for a total of 56 chilling effect concerns raised. The most often identified cause of a chilling effect was alleged to be management behavior (for example, questioning employees as to why they wrote a condition report). Chilling effect allegers also mentioned that they were most hesitant to raise concerns to their immediate supervisors and managers.

The second largest category of allegations in 2023 related to wrongdoing. Wrongdoing concerns increased over 2022 with an equal number of concerns brought to the allegation program by workers at licensed sites and concerns self-reported by licensees. The most common concerns raised throughout the year included falsifying records, providing or maintaining incomplete or inaccurate information, and failure to follow procedures or processes.

Materials Licensee Trends

For materials licensees, the NRC received 40% more allegations in 2023 than in 2022. Similar to the past several years, most of these allegations involved exempt distribution products, which are products containing byproduct material that are commercially distributed by persons exempt from the requirements for an NRC license. Exempt distribution products include silicon chips, self-illuminous products, gunsights, and smoke detectors. The NRC noted that exempt distribution concerns continue to be a source of a high number of concerns because of consumers’ increased focus on the sale of these products on the internet.

Annual Enforcement Program Report

The NRC’s Office of Enforcement (OE) also recently published its Enforcement Program Annual Report for 2023. The NRC exercises its enforcement authority for violations of NRC regulations as identified by the NRC through inspections and investigations. During 2023, the NRC issued 63 escalated enforcement actions to licensees, nonlicensees, and individuals, which is 10 fewer than in 2022 (a 13% decrease) and is approximately equal to the five-year average from 2019 to 2023. The total number is also lower than the relatively recent highs of over 80 actions per year in 2016 and 2017.

NRC Enforcement Process

The NRC enforces compliance as necessary as a means of deterrence as well as to emphasize the importance of regulatory compliance and encourage identifying violations for corrective actions. Notices of violations (NOVs) and civil penalties are the NRC’s primary enforcement tools. The NRC can also issue orders to modify, suspend, or revoke a license and bar individuals from the industry—either for a fixed period or permanently.

Under “traditional enforcement,” violations of NRC regulations are assigned a severity level (SL) ranging from SL IV for minor violations to SL I for the most significant ones. Generally, SL IV violations are dispositioned as noncited violations, but under certain circumstances can result in an NOV. Violations that are SL I, II, or III are entered into the NRC’s escalated enforcement process, resulting in NOVs and potential civil penalties.

For operating reactors, the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) supplements the NRC’s enforcement process. Under the ROP, violations and inspection findings are assessed at a significance level and assigned a color—green, white, yellow, or red. Violations and findings assessed as white, yellow, or red are considered escalated enforcement actions and will result in an NOV and, under certain circumstances, receive a civil penalty. Willful violations of NRC regulations are always subject to traditional enforcement.

Enforcement Summary

Nuclear material licensees continued to receive the highest number of escalated enforcement actions, totaling 39 in 2023 and accounting for 62% of all actions issued. Operating reactors received the second largest number of escalated enforcement actions with 20 actions, or 32% of all actions. The remaining four actions were related to fuel facilities (three actions) and decommissioning and low-level waste (one action).

The majority of escalated actions occurred in Region IV (21 actions), and the other regions had comparable numbers of actions: Region II had 14 and Regions I and III each had 12. The remaining four actions were issued by the NRC Office of Nuclear Material Safety (three actions) and Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation (one action).

The most common outcome from escalated enforcement in 2023 was for the NRC to issue an NOV without civil penalties, occurring in 41 of the escalated enforcement actions, or 65%. Although the total number of enforcement actions decreased from 2022, the number of NOVs increased from 35 to 41. Nevertheless, the percentage of NOVs issued without civil penalties increased 63% in 2022. The NRC provided in its report that it considers a large percentage of NOVs without civil penalties to be a positive outcome, as it demonstrates that most licensees identify and correct violations themselves—a goal of the Enforcement Program.

In 2023, the NRC processed 11 enforcement actions with civil penalties—all NOVs. In total, the OE proposed $297,750 in civil penalties, significantly below the five-year average of $682,253. According to the NRC, this is because in calendar years 2019–2021, operating reactors (which have higher civil penalty amounts) accounted for a substantial portion of the proposed civil penalties. In contrast, no reactors had a civil penalty proposed in 2023.

Of these 11 enforcement actions, two involved “willfulness,” meaning deliberate misconduct or careless disregard. The NRC is particularly concerned with the identification of willful violations and may view violations involving willfulness to be more egregious than the underlying violation taken alone.

We will continue closely following and reporting on these topics.