Hierarchy of Nuclear Regulatory Requirements

September 2, 2014
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #37

NEAT #14 covered the NRC’s regulations and associated guidance documents. NEAT #5 covered the technical specifications, an appendix to the operating license issued by the NRC for each reactor. NEAT #37 explains the relationship between the regulatory requirements in these, and other, sources.

At the top of the hierarchy are laws passed by the US Congress and signed by the president. For example, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 created the NRC and empowered it to promulgate regulations in order to implement its safety mandate.

Using the authority given it by these laws, the NRC developed regulations covering the licensing, operation, and decommissioning of nuclear power reactors. In doing so, the NRC could neither exceed the authorities conferred by these laws nor develop regulations that conflicted with other federal laws (such as the Administrative Procedures Act and Government in the Sunshine Act.) The NRC’s regulations include the licensing of existing reactors and the licensing of new reactors.

Nuclear plant owners submitted Final Safety Analysis Reports and prospective technical specifications to the NRC for review and, hopefully, approval with the operating license. The former described plant design features and associated safety studies showing how the plants would comply with the NRC’s regulations. The latter established the ground rules for keeping the plant within the boundaries of NRC reviewed and approved safety studies.

Similar to how the NRC could develop regulations only within the bounds established by its enabling laws and other applicable laws, plant owners developed Final Safety Analysis Reports and technical specifications within the bounds established by the NRC’s regulations. An exception allowed plant owners to ask for a waiver or exemption from an NRC regulation. If the NRC reviewed the justification accompanying the request and determined that safety margins were not unduly compromised, it allowed the departure.

Workers at each nuclear plant develop hundreds of procedures for the operation, testing, and maintenance of systems and equipment. The review and approval process for these procedures seeks to ensure that the activities will satisfy all applicable regulatory requirements.  In other words, there must be fidelity between procedures, NRC’s regulatory requirements, and governing laws. (There’s a direct link in that NRC’s regulations require that workers use formal procedures when operating, testing, and maintaining safety systems.)

There’s even a hierarchy in the procedures themselves. There are corporate-wide procedures governing activities undertaken at all nuclear plants owned by the company. There are site-wide procedures governing activities undertaken by all departments at a specific site. There are department-wide procedures governing activities undertaken by all workers within a single department. And there are group procedures governing activities undertaken by all workers within a group of a department. In theory, lower-tier procedures conform to and align with all upper-tier procedures, but there are exceptions to every rule.

As covered in NEAT #25, plant owners can modify their facilities and revise their procedures. Sometimes, they can do so without prior NRC review and approval. But if the proposed change reduces safety margin or alters the NRC’s basis for approving the existing safety margin, the owner must seek and obtain NRC’s approval before making the change.

Bottom Line

If it appears the hierarchy is crisp, clean and straight-forward, my apologies for misleading you. There are many requirements from many sources that make it a challenge to ensure compliance with all applicable ones.

An example was described in Fission Stories #83. Workers at the Salem Unit 2 reactor in New Jersey discovered that a charcoal filter in a ventilation system had not been tested as required by the technical specifications. The requirement was to test the filter after 750 hours of ventilation system operation. But the system had been operated for 988 hours since the last test of the filter.

A licensing engineer drafted a report to notify the NRC about the testing failure. During the senior managers’ review of the draft report, a manager observed that 988 hours is after 750 hours and therefore the requirement had not been violated. The licensing engineer pointed out that the tests are normally performed before the ventilation system accumulated 750 hours of operating time, thus violating the “after” requirement. The manager justified this practice as being conservative to the requirement. The “right either way” contention was out-voted and the company reported the failure to properly test the charcoal filter to the NRC.

The challenge facing plant workers and NRC inspectors is in verifying that a lower-level procedure is aligned with the appropriate hierarchy and does not conflict with other applicable requirements.

For example, it is not sufficient for workers and inspectors to verify that an activity was conducted exactly how described within an approved procedure if that procedure violates a regulatory requirement.

This does not mean that each worker has to trace every step in a procedure all the way up through the hierarchy to the Atomic Energy Act. But it does mean that the collective efforts of reviewing procedures during their revision and periodically auditing activities should result in all applicable requirements being met.

The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.