The NRC’s Allegations Program handles accusations that NRC’s requirements are being violated. The NRC receives allegations from workers at NRC-licensed facilities as well as from other sources. For example, workers sometimes seek to protect their identities (and their jobs) by voicing their concerns to media and groups like UCS. The NRC’s 250-word definition of allegation contains three footnotes containing 206 words of “clarification.” Ignoring that legal mumbo-jumbo, the NRC’s Allegations Program looks into reports that the agency’s requirements may have been violated.
The NRC can process allegations submitted anonymously, but would prefer to know the sources of allegations. The NRC seeks to ensure it correctly understands the allegations before dispatching inspectors to examine the issues. And sometimes the NRC re-contacts sources for additional information during the course of its investigations. The NRC also sends a letter summarizing the scope of its investigation and its findings to sources it knows.
With very few exceptions (such as when an allegation is made in a newspaper article or posted on a website), the NRC treats all sources confidentially even within the agency. For example, while the NRC’s allegations staff know the identity of a source, the NRC’s inspectors who investigate the allegations would not know this information.
Management Directive 8.8 is the NRC’s procedure for handling allegations. The NRC’s goal is to resolve allegations within 180 days. If it takes longer, the NRC updates known sources every 180 days on the progress of its investigation.
Each year, the NRC issues a report about its Allegations Program discussing issues like trends in allegation numbers nationwide and at selected nuclear plants. When there’s a significant increase in the number of allegations received by the NRC concerning a specific plant, the NRC looks behind the numbers for any underlying reasons, such as safety culture problems. The NRC documents its conclusions from these probes in the annual reports. Recently, the NRC probed allegations received for the San Onofre, Susquehanna, Turkey Point, St. Lucie, and Indian Point plants.
The NRC’s website provides allegations statistics. Allegation data is sliced and diced many different ways. One table provides the overall number of allegations received from all sources for each nuclear plant over the past five years. This table shows that few plants go an entire year without the NRC receiving an allegation, but most plants have a small handful of allegations. The table shows that NRC received 4 allegations concerning Millstone in 2010. That volume nearly tripled to 11 allegations in 2011 and nearly doubled to 19 in 2012.
Another table shows the number of allegations received by the NRC from onsite sources, meaning workers at the plant. Among other things, this table along with the prior table show that all of the allegations received by the NRC about Millstone in 2010 and 2011 came from workers while only 9 of the 19 allegations received about the plant in 2012 came from workers.
Another table reports on the numbers of allegations that were substantiated by the NRC’s investigations. About one-quarter to one-third of allegations are substantiated. In recent years, the 28 allegations substantiated at San Onofre in 2010 set a high (or low) mark.
Another table builds upon the allegations substantiated by the NRC’s investigations to count times when the agency responded with some form of sanctions (e.g., issuing violations or orders). This table shows that of the 28 allegations substantiated at San Onofre in 2010, 14 resulted in sanctions.
Workers raising safety concerns, either internally or to the NRC, are protected under federal regulation from retaliation or harassment for having done so. Another table reports on the number of allegations received by the NRC involving alleged violation of this regulation. No nuclear plant went without such an allegation between 2009 and 2013 while San Onofre had double-digit allegations in three of those years.
Finally, a table reports on the number of open allegations per plant over the past five years. Only five allegations received by the NRC in 2009 remain open at this time. Overall, the numbers suggest the NRC is largely meeting its goal of resolving allegations within 180 days as fewer and fewer open allegations exist as one moves back each year in time.
The NRC’s Allegations Program is important. Workers are like canaries in a coal mine, being in the best positions to detect safety problems at their earliest opportunities. Normally, workers raise safety concerns to their management. When workers feel unable to approach management or have apprised management about their concerns but received unsatisfactory responses, they can reach out to NRC. The statistics show that NRC takes allegations seriously – allegations are being substantiated and do result in sanctions.
The allegation statistics are somewhat like connect-the-dots drawings with the numbers beside the dots removed. They enable one to draw virtually any picture desired from them.
Consider a year where Plant X had 20 allegations and Plant Y had 0 allegations. Which plant has the worse safety culture? Plant X because workers do not trust management and feel compelled to seek NRC’s help? Or Plant Y because workers have such low standards that they do not report safety problems to management or the NRC? Numbers alone do not reveal that important context.
Likewise, if Plant X had 20 substantiated allegations and Plant Y had 2 substantiated allegations, numbers alone do not differentiate safety performance. If all Plant X’s problems involved submitting reports to the NRC late (technically, a violation of regulations) and Plant Y’s problems involved matters like the reactor vessel head being duct-taped in place and workers having to sweep spent fuel pellets off the parking lot, the smaller number would reflect bigger problems.
Thus, of all the information, the number I consider most important involves timeliness of NRC’s resolution of the allegations. The NRC’s investigations provide the context that is missing from the numbers alone.
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.