The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Office of Investigations (OI) recently published its Office of Investigations Annual Report FY 2019, providing an overview of OI’s activities during the previous fiscal year. The report shows that OI opened 21% fewer cases in 2019 than in 2018, continuing the downward trend of the last 10 years.

Notably, OI Director Andy Shuttleworth identified two important factors contributing to the decline: “(1) the number of operational reactors and (2) the operating experience of the reactor operators.” Interestingly, Director Shuttleworth also referenced the possibility of the agency making other unspecified use of its collection of information gathered by OI agents.

Of the 80 cases opened in FY 2019, 15 involved suspected material false statements (a decrease of 6% from 2018), 20 involved potential violations of other NRC requirements (a decrease of 26% from 2018), 23 were assists to staff (an increase of 28% from 2018), and 22 addressed allegations of discrimination (a decrease of 45% from 2018).

“Discrimination” in this context refers to retaliation for engaging in protected activities under 10 CFR 50.7. The proportion of discrimination cases in OI’s total workload dropped in FY 2019, as did the total number of reactor cases. This could reflect Director Shuttleworth’s reference to the experience of reactor licensees. The decline appears in contrast to the number and significance of discrimination violations alleged by the Office of Enforcement (OE) this last year. OE’s annual report has not yet been published.

OI substantiated two instances of willful misconduct at two unidentified Region II facilities in conjunction with the US Department of Homeland Security. In the first case, an access manager at a Region II facility “deliberately violated NRC regulations and licensee procedures by granting a foreign national unescorted access to the Region II nuclear facilities and deliberately created incomplete and inaccurate access records that are material to the NRC.” In the second case, “a foreign national was not authorized to work in the United States [and] the foreign national deliberately failed to provide complete and accurate information to a Region II NRC-licensed facility in order to gain unescorted access to that facility.”

These findings appear related to the broader federal government interest in unauthorized foreign persons gaining access to commercial nuclear facilities. Both results remain under regulatory review by the NRC Staff.

The NRC also substantiated an allegation of discrimination at St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant. Specifically, the NRC found that the former corporate support vice president discriminated against a former contract employee for raising nuclear safety concerns during a refueling outage. In preparation for the pre-decisional enforcement conference, St. Lucie questioned the authenticity of the journal that the former vice president had provided in the course of the investigation, pertaining to the allegation of discrimination. OI then initiated a second investigation, and concluded that the former vice president deliberately submitted false information to the NRC in the journal. On September 12, 2019, the NRC issued Florida Power & Light (the licensee) a Notice of Violation and a proposed civil penalty of $232,000. The NRC categorized this violation at Severity Level II, and prohibited the former vice president from any involvement in NRC-licensed activities for the next five years.

The OI report documents a downward trend in the number of allegations involving both reactor licensees and materials licensees. OI opened 12% fewer reactor cases in FY 2019 than it did in FY 2018.

The report shows that although reactor investigations decreased by 23%, reactor-related assists to staff increased by 42%. Likewise, OI opened 44% fewer materials cases in FY 2019 than it did in FY 2018. The number of materials investigations decreased by 57%, and there was no change in materials-related assists to staff.

We counsel reactor and materials licensees and their contractors about OI investigations and will continue to closely follow developments in this area.