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Trying to sell analysis tools to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

June 27th, 2012 No comments

Over the last few days there has been an interesting, and in places somewhat worrying, discussion going on in the Safety Critical mailing list about the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I thought I would tell my somewhat worrying story about dealing with the NRC.

In 1996 the NRC posted a request for information for a tool that I thought my company stood a reasonable chance of being able to meet (“NRC examines source code in nuclear power plant safety systems during the licensing process. NRC is interested in finding commercially available tools that can locate and provide information about the following programming practices…”). I responded, answered the questions on the form I received and was short listed to make a presentation to the NRC.

The presentation took place at the offices of National Institute of Standards and Technology, the government agency helping out with the software expertise.

From our brief email exchanges I had guessed that nobody at the NRC/NIST end knew much about C or static analysis. A typical potential customer occurrence that I was familiar with handling.

Turned up, four or so people from NRC+one(?) from NIST, gave a brief overview and showed how the tool detected the constructs they were interested in, based on test cases I had written after reading their requirements (they had not written any but did give me some code that they happened to have, that was, well, code they happened to have; a typical potential customer occurrence that I was familiar with handling).

Why did the tool produce all those messages? Well, those are the constructs you want flagged. A typical potential customer occurrence that I was familiar with handling.

Does any information have to be given to the tool, such as where to find header files (I knew that they had already seen a presentation from another tool vendor, these managers who appeared to know nothing about software development had obviously picked up this question from that presentation)? Yes, but it is very easy to configure this information… A typical potential customer occurrence that I was familiar with handling.

I asked how they planned to use the tool and what I had to do to show them that this tool met their requirements.

We want one of our inspectors to be able turn up at a reactor site and check their source code. The inspector should not need to know anything about software development and so the tool must be able to run automatically without any options being given and the output must be understandable to the inspector. Not a typical potential customer occurrence and I had no idea about how to handle it (I did notice that my mouth was open and had to make a conscious effort to keep it closed).

No, I would not get to see their final report and in fact I never heard from them again (did they find any tool vendor who did not stare at them in disbelief?)

The trip was not a complete waste of time, a few months earlier I had been at a Java study group meeting (an ISO project that ultimately failed to convince Sun to standarize Java through the ISO process) with some NIST folk who worked in the same building and I got to chat with them again.

A few hours later I realised that perhaps the question I should have asked was “What kind of software are people writing at nuclear facilities that needs an inspector to turn up and check?”