For nuclear power plants and the area surrounding them, it is all about safety, internally and externally. That is why the nuclear watchdog of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is faulting the agency for failing to follow through on safety agreements with facilities.

The NRC’s system for tracking corrective action raises questions about its oversight of nuclear safety and security, said the NRC’s Office of Inspector General.

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After an eight-month audit, the inspector general said the NRC has no centralized way to oversee or follow up on documents confirming that a nuclear facility has committed itself to address “significant concerns regarding health and safety, the environment, safeguards or security.”

The documents — known as Confirmatory Action Letters (CALs) — are one of the last measures before the NRC cracks down with a stringent binding order like suspension or revocation of a nuclear plant’s license.

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Because CALs are for a small number of potentially serious cases — 15 to 20 of the hundreds of incident reports the NRC issues each year, according to its records — effective oversight of the confirmation process is of “utmost importance,” the inspector general said. But in some cases, the action letters are so poorly drafted they don’t even make it clear who the intended recipients are, the report said.

The problem is one of red tape, not willful inaction or neglect, the report said. But the weaknesses, which include a lack of consistent guidelines for regional NRC offices, regional offices’ failure to comply with those guidelines and some offices’ lack of any tracking system whatsoever, “degrade” the agency’s accountability, it said.

A spokesman for the NRC said the agency believes “the CAL process has been effective” and that it would have a formal reply “in the near future.” In an informal meeting last month, the NRC generally agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations to update its main enforcement manual, centralize tracking and submit to occasional audits of the action letter system, the report said.

If the NRC is to do that, it won’t be with added staff or much new money. In its fiscal 2013 budget request, the agency notes that it is asking for $15 million more than it got last year, a 1.4 percent increase, including what it called a “cost-conscious” reduction of 25 jobs.

And those cuts are coming as concerns are rising over the safety of America’s aging nuclear infrastructure.

Until last week, the NRC hadn’t licensed any new reactors for more than 30 years. Consequently, many of the nation’s 104 nuclear plants are operating under licenses that the NRC has extended for up to 20 years beyond their original 40-year life spans.

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