Commendable Effort: NRC Improves Its Operator Licensing Process

, director, Nuclear Safety Project | December 21, 2015, 10:16 am EDT
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A recurring theme among my commentaries is that actions taken by plant owners and the NRC only fix broken widgets and do not fix the assembly lines creating them. In the case described here, the NRC could have remedied the broken widget by issuing the Senior Reactor Operator license as directed by the ASLB. But the NRC sought the bigger and better fix by voluntarily reviewing its operator licensing process with the aim of making it clearer and more consistent.

Operator Licenses Issued by the NRC

Fig.1 (

Fig.1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Flickr Album)

Per 10 CFR Part 55, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses hundreds of individuals each year as nuclear power plant operators. The NRC requires individuals at the controls of a nuclear power plant to be licensed by the agency. The NRC issues two types of licenses: Reactor Operator and Senior Reactor Operator. The former are the individuals manning nuclear plant control rooms. The latter supervise the Reactor Operators. Fission Stories #163 described operator training.

The Operator License Not Issued by the NRC

In the spring of 2011, ten candidates took exams administered by the NRC seeking to obtain Senior Reactor Operator licenses for the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia. The NRC’s operator licensing process consists of two portions: (1) an operating exam conducted on a control room simulator, and (2) a written exam. The operating exam tests the candidate’s proficiency at evaluating plant conditions and implementing appropriate response procedure steps. The written exam tests the candidate’s knowledge of technology and regulatory requirements. The NRC’s operator licensing examination standards can be found in NUREG-1021.

The ten candidates had been in a class of twenty workers that began preparing for the NRC exams nearly two years earlier. Their full-time preparations spanning that period included taking simulator and written exams intended to duplicate the ones conducted by the NRC. Half the class successfully completed all the preparatory work and took the NRC’s exams. One candidate failed both portions of the NRC’s exams. Six candidates passed the operating exam but failed the written exam.

The NRC’s operator licensing process allows a candidate to re-take a failed exam and to request and be granted a waiver from re-taking an exam portion successfully passed. The company notified the NRC of its intent to have the six candidates retake the NRC’s written exam and requested waivers from the operating exams all had successfully passed. The NRC discouraged the company from seeking a waiver for one of the candidates, so the company formally requested waivers for only five candidates. The sixth candidate retook the NRC’s exams—both of them—in the spring of 2011. The other five candidates only retook the written exam.

The sixth candidate passed the written exam on the second attempt, but now failed the operating exam. The candidate appealed the failure, contending the operating exam had been improperly administered and graded. The NRC administratively reviewed the appeal and sustained the denial of the Senior Reactor Operator license.

The Operator License Issued by the NRC

The sixth candidate initiated a legal proceeding before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) contesting the denial. The ASLB formed a three-person panel to review the matter. The ASLB conducted its proceeding, including a two-day evidentiary hearing in July 2013. The NRC staff presented eight witnesses and entered 59 exhibits. The sixth candidate and three witnesses testified and entered 121 exhibits. On March 18, 2014, the ALSB issued its 144-page decision. It ruled in favor of the sixth candidate:

The Board concludes that the Staff violated NUREG-1021 and its goals of equitable and consistent examination administration when it changed the scoring procedure so as to apply more stringent criteria to Ms. Smith than were applied to other applicants in her examination class. Such actions were also inappropriate, unjustified, arbitrary, and an abuse of discretion.


Had the administrative review graded Ms. Smith’s operating exam consistently with the standards applied to other applicants and as required by NUREG-1021, she would have passed the 2012 operating exam. She passed the 2012 written exam. She therefore satisfied the operating and written examination requirement for a SRO license.

The ASLB directed the NRC to issue a Senior Reactor Operator license to the sixth candidate. The NRC issued the Senior Reactor Operator license as directed.

The Commendable Operator Licensing Effort Undertaken by the NRC

The NRC’s commendable effort was not in issuing the Senior Reactor Operator license as directed by the ASLB. Doing what you are told to do is not commendable.

What’s commendable is that the NRC voluntarily undertook an effort to examine its operator licensing exam process. The ASLB’s ruling did not direct the NRC to review this process. The NRC could easily have contended that the Vogtle case was isolated and not reflective of any weakness in the process for issuing operator licenses. Instead, the NRC formed a Lessons Learned Review Team consisting of six members representing all four NRC regions and headquarters. The team issued its report on November 4, 2014. The team made 23 recommendations to enhance the operator licensing process in these four categories:

  1. Improving consistency for testing and grading
  2. Clarifying the waiver process for previously passed exams
  3. Formalizing the administrative review process for contested exam results
  4. Defining the composition of the exam teams

The team did a good job explaining why each recommendation was needed and how it would enhance the existing process.

The team’s commendable performance reviewing the operating licensing process and recommending ways to improve it was matched by the NRC staff’s performance responding to the team’s report. The NRC formed the Operator Licensing Implementation Team to act upon the Lessons Learned Review Team’s recommendations. By letter dated June 9, 2015, the new team adopted 22 of the 23 recommendation, 19 exactly as recommended and 3 with modest tweaks. The remaining recommendation was not dismissed—it is being addressed by other means.

Our Takeaway

Judging from the report by the Lessons Learned Review Team, it was a resource investment that is very likely to reap generous dividends in the future. And the NRC did not merely identify ways to improve the process. It undertook timely steps to implement the recommendations and achieve the improvements identified.

As non-intuitive as it sound, how an organization responds to a problem is often more insightful than lack of reported problems from an organization. The latter could merely be due to good luck which might run out someday. The former reveals much about an organization’s tolerance level for problems and capacity to implement solutions. In this case, the NRC’s efforts demonstrated that it did not tolerate the status quo and had the means to seek enhancements. The status quo was by no means an immediate crisis, yet the NRC intervened and took timely measures to avert what might have otherwise grown into a crisis.

We don’t have an answer key to grade NRC’s performance in response to the ASLB decision, but we qualitatively assess it as being considerably north of 80%.

The Power of One

An account of this matter would be deficient without acknowledging the role of the most important player—the sixth candidate who challenged the NRC’s decision. Charlissa C. Smith worked harder than most people to become a Senior Reactor Operator. Like all, she underwent a lengthy, grueling process preparing for the NRC’s exams (as evidenced by half her class not finishing the process). Like almost none, she then underwent what must have seemed an interminable and more grueling legal battle to finally receive the license she’d worked so hard and long for. But for her perseverance, the weaknesses in the NRC’s licensing process would not have been flagged and fixed. If anyone doubts her achievement, read the ASLB’s decision to see how she overcame the considerable forces arrayed against her.

I worked with many Reactor Operators and Senior Reactor Operators at the Hatch, Browns Ferry, Grand Gulf, and Hope Creek nuclear plants and found them to be very professional and dedicated. Some had amazing memories, able to quote chapter and verse from obscure regulations and procedures or to cite the location and elevation from the floor of seldom-used test connections and gadgets throughout the plant. But I was most impressed by those individuals who displayed the willingness to rise to any challenge they faced on duty. Ms. Smith’s passing the NRC’s exams demonstrated she possessed the skill sets required of control room operators; her perseverance in getting her license demonstrated her tenacity in applying her skills. The combination will serve her, and nuclear safety, well.

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