NRC questions failure rate of new Vogtle reactor operators

The U.S. Nuclear Reg­ulatory Commission wants Southern Nuclear to explain why an unusually high number of reactor operators failed their initial licensing tests at Plant Vogtle last year.

“They are doing a root cause analysis, and we’re going through a lengthy investigation and analysis, too,” said Katherine Melvin, a spokeswoman at Southern Nuclear.

Ten new operators were tested last spring, but only three applicants passed both the operating test and the written examination and received licenses, according to NRC records.

In a letter dated Monday to Tom Tynan, Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle vice president, the NRC operator licensing branch chief, Bruno Caballero, said federal regulators will hold a public meeting March 21 “to provide an opportunity to discuss the high failure rate on the April 2011 initial operator license examination, including planned corrective actions.”

The licensing candidates were being trained for work at the Waynesboro plant’s existing Units 1 and 2 and had undergone a rigorous, two-year training program before taking the certification tests, Melvin said.

“They were candidates, going for NRC certification,” she said. “This doesn’t affect the running of the reactors. We are fully staffed with licensed operators, and those people go through constant training.”

Such a high failure rate is not unheard of, but it is unusual, said NRC spokesman Joey Ledford.

“Normally, you see a passing rate of 80 to 90 percent,” he said. “But even in the best circumstances, not everyone passes the initial operator license exam.”

The training and examination program used at Plant Vogtle is under scrutiny, along with the NRC’s oversight program to screen and approve such tests before they are given.

According to correspondence included with the meeting notice, the exams were developed by Vogtle training staff but modified after deficiencies were identified by the NRC, which later signed off on the exams.

The March 21 meeting in Atlanta will let Southern Nuclear officials present their findings and discuss corrective actions that could improve the reactor operator training programs and the passing rate on initial licensing exams.

MEETING SET

WHAT: Southern Nuclear officials and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will discuss why a high number of nuclear reactor operators at Plant Vogtle failed initial licensing tests.

WHEN: 1 p.m. March 21

WHERE: NRC Region II, 245 Peachtree Center Ave. NE, Suite 1200, Atlanta.

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