Success or Failure?
I was a little surprised to read that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) non-concurrence process has recently come under attack. I have always considered it one of the strong points of the NRC's efforts to ensure that all possible efforts are made to hear and consider minority viewpoints on safety issues. Briefly stated, the NRC non-concurrence process provides for several mechanisms through which NRC staff members can raise their concerns about NRC decisions--and be sure those concerns are considered.
The criticism seems to be spurred by the results of a survey the NRC had conducted to see what different groups of staffers felt about the process. Overall, the survey found that the views of the process were fairly positive. However, the employees who had actually used the process gave the agency lower marks.
The question is, what do the results of this survey really mean? As Rod Adams has pointed out in his blog, Atomic Insights, the results of the survey are based on a very small sample size, and there is a tendency, in this type of survey, for people who are unhappy to be the most likely to respond.
There are other factors as well. There are a lot of smart people at NRC, and they all take their jobs seriously. This means that it is a normal practice to consider all options. This doesn't make them immune to making mistakes--that is the very reason the non-concurrence process exists--but it should not be surprising that, most of the time, even after the enhanced review that the non-concurrence process spurs, the original decision of the staff will prevail.
Furthermore, the problems that NRC deals with are complex and multifaceted. There are often many considerations to be balanced. It is very easy for any one individual to focus on one solution and start to shut out the big picture. That is one good reason that most decisions at NRC involve a number of staffers, often from different specialties. It helps reduce the chance that a decision will be made without looking at the problem from all angles. Those who challenge the NRC decisions are most often individuals, and may, at times, operate without the benefit of these multiple inputs.
Even with all this, there is always a chance of bias creeping in. The non-concurrence process provides an avenue to ensure that someone takes an independent look at the decision, and the criticism of it, before it is finalized. Thus, the process provides for review by a higher management level, up to and including the Chairman of the NRC.
This process has been used, and it has resulted in changes of direction. Nevertheless, in many cases, the original staff decision is upheld. Ideally, both sides should put the events behind them after a final decision is made. There is not supposed to be retaliation against someone who raised a concern, and there is not supposed to be continued resentment by the challenger if his or her view doesn't prevail in the end.
But human nature being what it is, that part of the process may be the greatest challenge to the system. It would not be surprising for a manager, consciously or subconsciously, to be particularly critical of an employee when performance appraisal time comes around. And it would not be surprising for an employee to feel rejected in general and to view every interaction in a negative light.
I don't know if any of this is the case. I certainly am not aware of any cases where managers or staff discriminated against employees who raised safety concerns. But it is not impossible. Therefore, I think NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane took exactly the right approach when she said that the agency was taking these findings seriously and would look into them. That response is exactly in the spirit of the process itself.