Sunday, April 24, 2011

Current Events

“ The mission of the NRC is to license and regulate the Nation’s civilian use of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment.”

This is what I do for a living. This is what puts food on my table, what keeps a roof over my family's head, keeps the lights on, and even allows me to engage in one of the world's greatest hobbies-triathlon. Specifically, I am a Senior Project Engineer for the Division of Reactor Projects in USNRC Region I. As a regulator, it is my job to ensure that the plants that I inspect are operated safely and in compliance with their operating license and the associated Federal Regulations. It truly is one of the greatest jobs in the world (my humble opinion). Each day brings new challenges and new opportunities. It is hard work, it requires incredible patience, it requires independent thought, and cohesive teamwork. It requires me to be a cop, a teacher, a spokesman, and a judge sometimes all in the same day. But when your job description contains the words "protect public health and safety" it is something to be proud of. I love my job because in my job I truly can make a difference.

It takes a rather unique skill set to be successful in my line of work. You have to have a strong technical background and be able to understand how a nuclear power plant functions and how each of the plant systems function and interact. You need to understand the design, maintenance, testing, and operations of each systems in order to be able to identify that something is not right. You also need to understand the law. A regulator can only enforce the laws and regulations which the licensee is committed to. You have to understand how an issue fits or doesn't fit within the regulatory framework. Then you have to be able to determine the level of significance for an issue. So you need to understand Probabilistic Risk Assessment, legal precedence, and a mountain of enforcement guidance so you can make the right call.

You also must be able to communicate issues to the subjects of your inspection, to their bosses, to licensee management, to your bosses, to NRC management, to the NRC General Counsel, to elected officials Local, State, and Federal) to the press, and eventually to the public. Each level of communication has a different audience, a different perspective, and a different level of knowledge and the message must be tailored accordingly of it is to be effective.

But the real skill is learning how to inspect. Learning how to review an issue, observe an event, review a cubic ton of paperwork, interview people, and find an issue, determine if it is within their ability to foresee and prevent, determine if it violates a regulatory requirement, and determine how significant it is and then figure out the contributing causes. Often it is like a puzzle. How do I look at something and find something the plant staff miss? That is the art of my job. It is a matter of perspective. And somehow it turns out it is something I have become rather good at.

The past few months, have been very challenging. After listening to a bunch of politicians tell the world how federal workers such as myself were the problem to all t=our federal budget problems and we need to cut (BTW the NRC recovers 90% of our operating budget from licensing fees from our licensees), and having the specter of a government shutdown and furlough (Unpaid leave of absence) over our heads, the events in Japan happened. The NRC immediately manned our Headquarters Operations Center and have manned it 24/7 ever since. We also sent technical experts to Japan immediately to assist the US Embassy and the Japanese Government. One of my coworkers was one of the first two people sent over and another soon followed. Here is the US we had to evaluate what was happening in Japan and determine if US Nuclear Plants were vulnerable to similar threats. We had to answer "Could it happen here?" "Are these plants still safe in light of the events in Japan?" The NRC took prompt actions conducting an immediate safety review at each of the 104 US nuclear facilities, and being forced to look at things from a different perspective. The Chairman and EDO testified for Congress. I was intimately involved in the planning and execution of the region's first Public Plant Annual Assessment Meetings following the Japan events. Reassuring the public that the plant in there backyard was still safe is a challenge when they see the images on TV. But as an Agency (and personally), the NRC concluded that US Plants are safe to continue operations. However, we fully intend to learn everything we can from these tragic events and evaluate it new or revised regulations are necessary. The events in Japan will challenge many of the assumptions the plants were designed upon, and certainly will change our perspective. Hopefully, we can learn from these events and make our plants even safer.

Triathlon has taught me many things and really has helped me perform my job. Staying calm in the face of adversity, having the patience and discipline to do the work necessary to see things through, how to make rationale decisions when mentally and physically exhausted are traits I have gained and/or honed through Triathlons which help me on a daily basis in my job. But Triathlon also taught me something else. Anything is possible. I wish mother nature didn't have to teach that lesson to the people of Japan the way she did.

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