The NRC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently released a report (OIG-21-A-13) discussing the results of its audit of the NRC’s pandemic oversight of nuclear power plants. The purpose of the audit was to “assess the NRC’s policies and procedures for conducting reactor inspections during the COVID-19 public health emergency and to identify best practices that could be applied during future pandemics or other public health emergencies.” In short, the OIG found that:
the NRC successfully adapted its inspections of nuclear power plants to meet its mission of obtaining reasonable assurance of adequate protection during the public health emergency while mitigating the risks of COVID-19 to NRC inspectors and licensee staff. However, the agency’s pandemic lessons learned process should include consideration of the possible impacts of adaptations to oversight processes on inspection results.
The report discussed the positive implementation of “hybrid inspections,” and listed the following examples of “newly possible” hybrid approaches:
- Resident inspectors monitoring plant operations data remotely when emergency conditions restrict plant site access
- Offsite licensee staff and offsite NRC inspectors teleconferencing for inspection-related meetings
- File transfer methods supporting remote reviews of even large documents, such as engineering drawings
- Regional inspectors conducting records reviews and meetings remotely, and calling on residents to perform needed walkdowns
- Supplementing, in some cases, records reviews and in-person walkdowns via video sources
The audit report also discussed a preliminary "lessons learned" report compiled by the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation (NRR), which recommended that the NRC (1) formalize agreements with licensees to ensure inspectors have continued access to plant information controlled by the licensee; (2) consider options to streamline inspections that would build on the use of communications tools to adapt inspection procedures (e.g., teleworking); and (3) consider revisions to inspection procedures or guidance to indicate specific activities and inspection requirements that can be performed fully remotely, partially remotely, or onsite.
Additionally, the report noted that the annual Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) Self-Assessment for 2020 “concluded that COVID-19 did not highlight any problems within the ROP, as the specific impacts would be expected to resolve as the pandemic recedes.” However, the OIG cautioned that the NRC “should have full information about implementation of remote inspections” before making any permanent changes, as the above assessments were performed only at a high level.
Ultimately, the OIG recommended in its report that the NRC conduct an assessment to examine options “for modifying inspection program documents and procedures to give staff flexibility for conducting inspections under irregular conditions.”
As we begin to move out of the pandemic, Morgan Lewis will continue to monitor and report on issues involving future NRC changes and adaptations relating to COVID-19.