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Enforcement Program Overview

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Regulatory Framework

The NRC's enforcement jurisdiction is drawn from the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of 1954, as amended, and the Energy Reorganization Act (ERA) of 1974, as amended. Subpart B of 10 CFR Part 2 of NRC's regulations sets forth the procedures the NRC uses in exercising its enforcement authority. In recognition that violations occur in a variety of activities and have varying levels of significance, the Commission set out to create an enforcement framework with graduated sanctions to reflect this diversity. The Commission's first public statement of policy on enforcement (the first Enforcement Policy) was published in 1980. Since that time, the Enforcement Policy has been revised numerous times to reflect experience and stakeholder input. Throughout these changes, two goals of the enforcement program remain unchanged--

  • to emphasize the importance of compliance with regulatory requirements, and
  • to encourage prompt identification, and prompt, comprehensive correction of violations.

The enforcement program is also intended to meet the agency's performance goals.

Violations are identified through inspections and investigations. All violations are subject to civil enforcement action and may also be subject to criminal prosecution. Unlike the burden of proof standard for criminal actions (beyond a reasonable doubt), the NRC uses the Administrative Procedures Act standard in enforcement proceedings (preponderance of evidence, i.e., information that is of greater weight or credibility or is more likely correct than not). After an apparent violation is identified, it is assessed in accordance with the Commission's Enforcement Policy. As the policy statement is a living document, revisions are noticed in the Federal Register. Because the policy statement is not a regulation, the Commission may deviate from the Enforcement Policy as appropriate under the circumstances of a particular case.

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Enforcement Actions

NRC uses three primary enforcement sanctions:

  1. Notice of Violation: A Notice of Violation (NOV) identifies a requirement and how it was violated, formalizes a violation pursuant to 10 CFR 2.201, and normally requires a written response.

  2. Civil Penalties: A civil penalty is a monetary fine issued under authority of Section 234 of the AEA or Section 206 of the ERA. Section 234 of the AEA provides for penalties of up to $100,000 per violation per day; but that amount has been adjusted by the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 to be $130,000.

  3. Orders: Orders modify, suspend, or revoke licenses or require specific actions by licensees or persons.

The Commission's order issuing authority under Section 161 of the AEA is broad and extends to any area of licensed activity that affects the public health and safety. NOVs and civil penalties are issued based on violations. Orders may be issued for violations, or in the absence of a violation, because of a public health or safety issue.

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Assessing Significance

After a violation is identified, the NRC then assesses the significance of a violation by considering:

  • actual safety consequences,
  • potential safety consequences,
  • potential for impacting the NRC's ability to perform its regulatory function, and
  • any willful aspects of the violation.

Violations are either:

  • assigned a severity level, ranging from Severity Level IV for those of more than minor concern to Severity Level I for the most significant, or
  • are associated with findings assessed through the reactor oversight process's Significance Determination Process (SDP) that are assigned a color of Green, White, Yellow, or Red based on increasing risk significance.

The Commission recognizes that there are violations of minor safety or environmental concern that are below Severity Level IV violations and below violations associated with Green SDP findings. These minor violations are not assigned a severity level categorization nor an SDP color assessment.

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Dispositioning Violations

The manner in which a violation is dispositioned is intended to reflect the seriousness of the violation and the circumstances involved.

Given their limited risk significance, minor violations are not subject to enforcement action and are not normally described in inspection reports. However, minor violations, like all violations, must be corrected.

Severity Level IV violations and violations associated with Green SDP findings make up the majority of all other violations identified in the nuclear industry. Provided certain criteria in Section VI.A of the Enforcement Policy are met, the NRC will normally disposition these Severity Level IV violations and violations associated with Green SDP findings as Non-Cited Violations (NCVs). NCVs are documented in inspection reports (or inspection records for some materials licensees) to establish public records of the violations, but are not cited in NOVs which normally require written responses from licensees. Dispositioning violations in this manner does not eliminate the NRC's emphasis on compliance with requirements nor the importance of maintaining safety. Licensees are still responsible for maintaining safety and compliance and must take steps to address corrective actions for these violations. This approach for violations that have low risk significance is consistent with the agency's performance goals.

More significant violations are candidates for escalated enforcement. Escalated enforcement action is defined as action involving Severity Level I, II, or III violations; violations associated with White, Yellow, or Red SDP findings; civil penalties; or orders. See a graphical representation of the NRC's graded approach for dispositioning violations.

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Conferences

A predecisional enforcement conference or a regulatory conference may be conducted with a licensee before making an enforcement decision if escalated enforcement action appears to be warranted, and if the NRC concludes that a conference is necessary or the licensee requests it.

NRC holds a conference to obtain information that will assist in determining the appropriate enforcement action, such as --

  • a common understanding of facts, root causes and missed opportunities associated with the apparent violations;
  • a common understanding of corrective action taken or planned, and
  • a common understanding of the significance of issues and the need for lasting comprehensive corrective action.

The decision to hold a conference does not mean that the agency has determined that a violation has occurred or that enforcement action will be taken. In accordance with the Enforcement Policy, conferences are normally open to public observation. If the NRC concludes that a conference is not necessary, it may provide a licensee with an opportunity to respond to the apparent violations before making an enforcement decision.

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Civil Penalties

Civil penalties are normally assessed for Severity Level I and II violations and knowing and conscious violations of the reporting requirements of Section 206 of the Energy Reorganization Act. Civil penalties are considered for Severity Level III violations. Although civil penalties will not normally be used for violations associated with the reactor oversight process, civil penalties (and the use of severity levels) will be considered for issues that are willful, that have the potential for impacting the regulatory process, or that have actual consequences.

The NRC imposes different levels of civil penalties based on a combination of:

  • the type of licensed activity,
  • the type of licensee,
  • the severity level of the violation, and
  • whether the licensee has had any previous escalated enforcement action (regardless of the activity area) during the past 2 years or past two inspections, whichever is longer,
  • whether the violation was willful or very significant,
  • whether the licensee should be given credit for actions related to identification,
  • whether the licensee's corrective actions are prompt and comprehensive, and
  • whether, in view of all the circumstances, the matter in question requires the exercise of discretion.

Although each of these decisional points may have several associated considerations for any given case, the outcome of the assessment process for each violation or problem, absent the exercise of discretion, is limited to one of the following three results: no civil penalty, a base civil penalty, or twice the base civil penalty.

If a civil penalty is proposed, a written Notice of Violation and Proposed Imposition of Civil Penalty is issued and the licensee has 30 days to respond in writing, by either paying the penalty or contesting it. The NRC considers the response, and if the penalty is contested, may either mitigate the penalty or impose it by order. Thereafter, the licensee may pay the civil penalty or request a hearing.

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Orders

The NRC may issue orders to modify, suspend, or revoke a license; to cease and desist from a given practice or activity; or take such other action as may be proper. Orders may be issued in lieu of, or in addition to civil penalties. The NRC may also issue an order to impose a civil penalty where a licensee refuses to pay a civil penalty. In addition, the NRC may issue an order to an unlicensed person (including vendors) where the NRC has identified deliberate misconduct. By statute, a licensee or individual may request a hearing upon receiving an order. Orders are normally effective after a licensee or individual has had an opportunity to request a hearing (30 days). Orders can, however, be made immediately effective without prior opportunity for a hearing whenever it is determined that the public health, safety, or interest so requires. Subsequent to the hearing process, a licensee or individual may appeal the administrative hearing decision to the court of appeals.

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Public Notice

Conferences that are open to public observation (Category 1 Meetings) are included in the listing of public meetings on the NRC's web site. The NRC issues a press release with a proposed civil penalty or order. All orders are published in the Federal Register. Significant enforcement actions, listed alphabetically and dating back to as early as 1994, can be found in the Enforcement Document Collection. For a comprehensive listing, see our high-value dataset of Significant NRC Enforcement Actions, as well as the related Data Dictionary (both in Microsoft Excel format).

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Thursday, July 11, 2013