Backgrounder on NRC Resident Inspectors Program
Since the late 1970s, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has maintained its own sets of eyes and ears at the nation's nuclear power plants. They are there in the form of on-site inspectors referred to as Resident Inspectors. Each plant has at least two such inspectors and their work is at the core of the agency's reactor inspection program.
On a daily basis, these highly trained and qualified professionals scrutinize activities at the plants and check on adherence to federal safety requirements. That oversight can take many forms on any given day, including an inspector visiting the control room and reviewing operator logbook entries or watching operators conduct plant manipulations; performing visual assessments of a certain area or areas of the plant; observing tests of, or repairs to, important systems or components; interacting with plant employees to see if they have any safety concerns; or checking corrective action documents to ensure that problems have been identified and appropriate fixes implemented.
Any safety-significant issues that are identified are promptly brought to the attention of plant operators to be corrected, if necessary, and communicated to NRC management. If any problems are significant enough, the NRC will consider whether enforcement action is warranted
The agency has about 150 Resident Inspectors, including some who are based at nuclear fuel production facilities and new reactor construction sites.
The Resident Inspectors come from a variety of backgrounds. Some served in the U.S. Nuclear Navy prior to joining the NRC. Others worked in the nuclear industry and still others are recruited directly out of college. Most come to the agency with engineering and/or science degrees, and then receive extensive additional training from the NRC. The rigorous training program educates the inspectors about federal safety regulations and their role in independently verifying these requirements are being met at the operating commercial reactors in the U.S.
Before becoming Resident Inspectors, each must complete a rigorous training and qualification process. Prospective inspectors demonstrate their abilities via a qualification exam administered by an Inspector Qualification Board, which consists of at least three members and evaluates how well an individual can integrate and apply inspector competencies to situations they are likely to encounter.
A Resident Inspector's training does not come to an end once he or she is determined to be fully qualified. All inspectors are required to receive training on an ongoing basis to maintain a high level of performance. They are required to take triennial refresher training for the specific reactor technology to which they are assigned. There is also other ongoing training for inspectors.
How It Began/The Need for Independence
The NRC's Resident Inspectors Program has been in place for decades. It was launched in 1978 – prior to the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island 2 nuclear power plant – to improve the agency's inspection program. The goal was to provide increased knowledge of conditions at plants, improve the NRC's ability to independently verify the performance of plant personnel and equipment, and enhance the NRC's incident response capability. Along those lines, the inspectors serve as the agency's initial evaluators of plant events or incidents, receive allegations regarding safety issues from plant employees and at times conduct inspections during off-hours and on weekends, among other activities.
Resident Inspectors typically live in the communities around the plants they help oversee. But because the preservation of their objectivity is essential, there are restrictions on their interactions with plant employees. For instance, Resident Inspectors are discouraged from participating in social activities in which plant employees are involved, and any previously existing relationships with plant personnel or contractors must be disclosed to management. Also, Resident Inspectors can remain at any given plant no longer than seven years, again with the goal of ensuring they do not become too close to those they are inspecting.
More information about the NRC's Reactor Oversight Process and the Resident Inspector Program is available on the agency's website, as well as the NRC's blog post on "A Day in the Life of a Resident Inspector."