Inspector General Faults NRC for Not Enforcing Safety Regulations

March 24, 2011
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

The NRC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report yesterday on its audit of the NRC’s enforcement of a regulation, 10 CFR Part 21, that requires plant owners to report safety equipment defects to the agency. The OIG found serious gaps in enforcement.

In particular the NRC is supposed to:

  • Ensure that plant owners notify it of defects in basic components that could cause a substantial safety hazard.
  • Specify which defects could create a substantial safety hazard.
  • Carry out inspections and other enforcement activities needed to make sure this is happening.

A plant owner may identify a defective component in safety equipment, and is supposed to report it to the NRC. But equally defective parts from the same vendor may have been installed at other reactors, and in that case safety systems at those reactors may not operate properly if needed. The 10 CFR Part 21 regulation is intended to help ensure that the NRC learns of such defective parts so it can take steps necessary to protect the public from defective components supplied to other reactors operated by other owners.

This sounds like common sense. But the OIG found that this regulation is not being followed. Specifically, OIG reported that “analysis of industry data indicate that there are apparent unreported Part 21 defects” and as a result, “the margin of safety for operating reactors could be reduced.”

According to the OIG, not only is the NRC is not fully enforcing the regulation, but it “has not levied any civil penalties or significant enforcement actions” for plants not reporting such defects “in at least the past 8 years.”

The OIG recommended five steps NRC should take to better protect the American public from defective safety equipment.

This issue is a problem and the OIG deserves recognition for having flagged it. But all owners have inspection and testing programs to find defective parts, or effective parts that have worn out. The notification process is important since it supplements these programs and gives added assurance against defective parts undermining safety, but it is not the only protection against it.