Nuclear Excellence Training

The Stress of the Final Exam

Regulatory NRC Exam

When I look back on my initial license training program to obtain my Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Senior Reactor Operator (SRO) license, I recall the intense amount of plant information and tasks I needed to learn just to be able to pass the final NRC exam. 

Over three decades ago, the SRO operating exam consisted of a four-section essay-style written exam, three simulator scenarios, and an all-day in plant walk-through with an assigned NRC examiner. The stress of that final exam still haunts me. The significant career milestone relied on the exam result. 

As in any profession with a career-path trajectory tied to examination, it is easy to doubt that you are fully prepared to meet that challenge at the end of the program. Like all utilities today, my classmates and I were subject to a company audit exam that replicated the NRC exam to verify that we could sit for the final NRC exam. Unfortunately, since not all candidates make it through the company audit exam process, the outcome can be very emotional for a candidate and classmates. It can cause last-minute changes to the makeup of crews going into the simulator portion of the exam, creating more stress. 

Even upon passing the audit exam, the actual NRC exam still caused sweaty palms and upset stomachs for those navigating the process. I remember an NRC examiner telling me that one candidate hyperventilated and passed out when asked to sketch a system-one line diagram on a whiteboard. NRC examiners are aware of the stress the candidates are facing during the final exam and generally try to ease some of that when interacting with them. 

Part of getting Initial License Training (ILT) candidates ready for the NRC final exam is preparing them to deal with the stress of the process and with last-minute changes to crew alignments post-audit results. In the many years I have been involved with multiple ILT classes, I have seen strong, capable candidates succumb to the stress of the exam. These candidates may have shown composure throughout exam processes during the program, but then, when the chips are on the table, they fold. They may change written answers because they second guess themselves, or they may take inappropriate actions during the simulator scenarios, to the bewilderment of the Training staff and their fellow ILT members. 

Constructing a fair exam package, which meets strict regulatory requirements and distinguishes a competent candidate from one who is not, is a complex task. Historically, within the nuclear industry, there have been cases where the exam itself caused a high failure rate of candidates that were deemed fully prepared and should have been successful. When these high failure events occur, site leadership teams are left to determine whether the audit exams failed to expose problems that should have been addressed. Were the candidates fully prepared? Was the exam constructed and validated to be a fair operational test? What oversight and engagement were given to the exam development process?  

As you may imagine, when the results of an NRC exam produce a poor outcome, the effects are devastating for everyone involved. The individual candidates who sacrificed and committed to the strenuous ILT program are most severely impacted when faced with results they didn’t expect. Even though there may be a recovery process and an eventual opportunity to retake the exam and earn the coveted NRC license, being unable to succeed on the first attempt may have a profound impact on the remainder of the candidate’s career. 

The good news is that, over the years, the industry has focused on developing the right processes and oversight and on sharing common experiences in order to construct a quality NRC exam and audit exams. Utilities are recognizing that the development of candidates includes the promotion of ways to handle the stress of the exam process. 

As an industry, we recognize that a gap can still exist in the exam-building process if a utility doesn’t have the right bench strength. Within the Training group, exam developers may lack experience and proficiency to get the exam constructed correctly. And, for as long as I’ve been involved in Training, external help, in the form of vendors or contractors, has also been available to help bridge this gap. Unfortunately, sometimes this outside help causes mixed results or even fails to produce a quality exam product for a class of candidates. 

Accelerant’s Regulatory Exam Support  

 At Accelerant, we have assembled a group of proven industry-experienced exam developers to offer critical support to sites that may have strained resources or lack experience and/or proficiency in building a quality exam product. These professionals are available for both initial and requalification exam needs and can supplement your existing teams. Our focus is to make use of all appropriate practices and interfaces necessary to provide an exam product that meets site needs and NRC requirements. With the skill and proficiency of our team of developers in constructing a quality exam, we look to remove one more stress factor in the exam process and focus on getting candidates past the final exam with positive results. 

If you would like to hear more about our training services for regulatory exam support, please contact us today at


Dan Roy

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