As part of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) efforts to create efficiencies in its enforcement process, the NRC Commissioners unanimously approved a staff proposal to change Section 4.1 of the NRC’s Enforcement Policy. Under this approved change, the NRC will not typically consider fitness-for-duty (FFD) drug and alcohol violations involving non-licensed individuals for enforcement action. But the NRC will still investigate if there are apparent deficiencies in a licensee’s FFD program itself or the program’s implementation. Thus, to avoid enforcement actions in the future, licensees must continue to maintain an effective FFD program for drug and alcohol violations.

As we last reported on October 5, 2018, the NRC Staff appeared ready to recommend withdrawing a rulemaking on third-party arbitration of access authorization and fitness-for-duty determinations. On April 4, 2019, the NRC Staff formally made its recommendation in SECY-19-0033. In so doing, the NRC Staff “request[ed] Commission approval to discontinue the rulemaking activity, ‘Access Authorization and Fitness-for-Duty Determinations’,” which began nearly four years ago. As previously reported, this rulemaking activity was a response to a 2012 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in which the court determined that NRC regulations permitted third-party arbitration of unescorted access determinations. At that time, the NRC Staff disagreed with the decision and asked for Commission approval to begin a rulemaking.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Office of Investigations (OI) recently published its Office of Investigations Annual Report FY 2018. The report provides an overview of OI’s activities during the previous fiscal year and shows that OI opened 12% fewer cases than in 2017. Of the 101 cases opened in FY 2018, 40% were discrimination cases, a 4% increase from FY 2017. “Discrimination” in this context refers to retaliation for engaging in protected activities established in Section 211 of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, as amended. Discrimination has remained the largest case category for the past three years. Material false statement investigations reflect 16% of the cases OI opened in FY 2018, a 4% decrease from FY 2017. Investigations into other alleged violations of NRC regulations reflect 27% of the cases OI opened in FY 2018, and investigations opened to provide assistance to the NRC staff reflect 18% of the cases OI opened in FY 2018.

The NRC issued an update to Management Directive 8.11 (MD 8.11), Review Process for 10 C.F.R. § 2.206 Petitions on March 1, culminating an on-again, off-again review process that began almost a decade ago. In issuing the updated MD 8.11, the NRC also issued a corresponding update to Directive Handbook 8.11 (DH 8.11), but pushed the detailed staff guidance that was previously in MD 8.11 to a publicly available Desktop Guide. In short, the review process in the updated MD 8.11 and DH 8.11 is not markedly different from the prior versions, but the changes also reduce some of the opportunities for licensees to directly seek clarification from a petitioner about the issue being raised and allow the NRC staff to “save” what might otherwise be deficient petitions. The updated MD 8.11 also does not resolve questions as to whether the ability to submit a Section 2.206 petition is restricted to only external stakeholders.

In a rare legal challenge related to fees the NRC charges nuclear licensees for its services, the US Court of Federal Claims recently held that the costs of certain NRC services provided in connection with Confirmatory Orders (COs) are not recoverable via hourly bills to individual licensees. The court held that COs are essentially enforcement orders, and thus cannot be viewed as conveying an “individual benefit” to licensees.

At the end of January, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a complete rewrite of Inspection Manual Chapter (IMC) 1240 on unescorted access authorization for NRC employees and contractors. The most major change from the prior version is that the NRC will no longer issue letters to licensees requesting unescorted access for NRC employees. Instead, the NRC will implement and maintain a Site Access List that identifies NRC employees and contractors whom the NRC has certified for unescorted access. Consistent with this change, the revised inspection manual chapter provides information on how the NRC will determine the suitability of its employees and contractors for unescorted access. The revisions also change how behavioral observation and fitness for duty programs apply to NRC employees and contractors and how they should be reported.

In January, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) staff hosted a public meeting with industry representatives to discuss the staff’s progress in reviewing recommendations for the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) framework enhancement initiative. The objectives of the ROP enhancement initiative are to evaluate whether the baseline inspection program remains relevant for the current environment, eliminate redundant or unnecessary inspection areas, maximize efficient and effective use of resources, and incorporate flexibility in program implementation, where appropriate.

In 2018, the NRC solicited ideas for enhancing the ROP, which resulted in an industry proposal based on four points: US fleet maturity, improved safety margins, improved risk assessments, and greater use of risk-informed decisionmaking. Part of this proposal includes redefining labels for findings and combining Columns 1 and 2 of the Action Matrix. If the industry proposal prevails, it would mark a paradigm shift, considering Columns 1 and 2 have been in existence since the pilot program for ROP enhancement was introduced in 1999. As was stated at the public meeting, combining Columns 1 and 2 would be a long-term change. A proposal to remove Section 71152 of the Inspection Procedure, for problem identification and resolution, was also raised at the meeting but was generally dismissed.

This blog post is the first in a series that will track further progress on the ROP enhancement initiative.

On January 31, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published a proposed rule to revise the professional hourly rate and flat licensing fees charged to licensees and applicants under 10 CFR Parts 170 and 171. Congress requires the NRC to recover 90% of its operating budget from fees, but certain new activities this year are excluded from that fee recovery requirement. For example, fees for advanced reactors will be carved out from the 90% fee recovery. Despite the carve-outs, NRC fees for each operating reactor will increase by approximately $330,000 (or 7.3%) from FY 2018.

A divided Commission at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on January 24 approved the Mitigation of Beyond-Design-Basis Events rulemaking (Final Rule). The NRC began the rulemaking in December 2016 as part of its efforts to evaluate and implement, if necessary, regulatory changes in response to the Fukushima Daichi event in March 2011. In somewhat of a surprise, the majority of Commissioners last week rejected large portions of the proposed rule submitted by the NRC staff over two years ago. The rationale for changing the Final Rule demonstrates a renewed emphasis on applying backfit analyses.

President Donald Trump on January 14 signed into law the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), Pub. L. 115-86, after it was passed by Congress in late December 2018. NEIMA covers a wide variety of issues, but two main topics should be particularly welcomed by the nuclear industry: relief from US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) fee collection and the clear direction to speed the rollout of an NRC licensing framework for advanced nuclear reactors.