NRC Probing Safety Culture Concerns at TVA Watts Bar Plant

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Rebecca Kern

March 24 — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is investigating concerns about a potential “chilled work environment” and fear of retaliation among employees who voice safety concerns at the Tennessee Valley Authority Watts Bar nuclear plant.

The NRC said in a March 23 letter to the TVA's chief nuclear officer that it found that the plant's operations department created a perception that “operators are not free to raise safety concerns using all available avenues without fear of retaliation.”

The agency had received allegations and started formal inspections and interviews in November 2015 with staff at the nuclear plant near Spring City, Tenn., Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman told Bloomberg BNA March 24.

The TVA said it is taking the allegations from employees in the operations department seriously and also began a parallel internal inspection in late December.

“Just the perception [of retaliation] creates a chilling effect, and that's an issue we must address because that is simply unacceptable.”

Jim Hopson, TVA manager of public relations

“To date, neither the NRC nor TVA has found any evidence of actual retaliation,” Jim Hopson, TVA's manager of public relations, told Bloomberg BNA March 24. But, he said, “Just the perception creates a chilling effect, and that's an issue we must address because that is simply unacceptable.”

Perceived Safety Concerns

The TVA first identified the potential chilling effect in its operations department, which is made up of about 180 employees and has the most important responsibilities at the plant— oversight of the physical operations of the nuclear reactor and its associated systems, Hopson said.

Hopson said some people in the department “expressed concerns about raising safety issues because there was the perception of a fear of retaliation.”

The TVA is continuing its current investigation to find the root cause of the issue, and has found the perception of a chilling effect only in the operations department, Hopson said.

“Whether or not there was true retaliation, the simple fact that there was a perception that there could be— the net effect is exactly the same,” he added.

Hopson said he didn't have details on how many employees raised concerns, but said it was a “trend that we saw developed in a fairly rapid time frame.”

The TVA said the safety culture within the operations department, which runs the control room of the nuclear plant, is of the upmost importance.

“These are the people who are ultimately responsible for the safe operation of the plant,” Hopson said.

NRC's Burnell said the agency sends a letter to nuclear plants when there are concerns raised about a chilling effect taking place, as was the case at Watts Bar. NRC defines a “chilling effect” as “a condition that occurs when an event, interaction, decision or policy change results in a perception that the raising of safety concerns to the employer or to the NRC is being suppressed or is discouraged,” he said.

Plan Of Action at Watts Bar

The letter directed the TVA to promptly notify all members of the workforce about the investigation, Hopson said. The TVA sent an e-mail, including the letter, to the Watts Bar employees on March 24, and a more general e-mail describing the investigation to all TVA employees.

Also, he said top officials at the plant have met with every member of the operations department to “clearly re-emphasize our expectation that there will be no retaliation of any circumstance when you're raising valid safety concerns.”

In the letter, the NRC gave the plant 30 days to conduct an in-depth assessment of the allegations and provide a plan of action. Hopson said the TVA is working to comply with the directives.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The NRC letter to TVA is available at http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1608/ML16083A479.pdf.