NRC to question TVA over handling of safety concerns at Watts Bar

NRC to question TVA over handling of safety concerns at Watts Bar

March 17th, 2016 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Mike Skaggs, senior vice president of operations and construction, speaks at a news conference at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, near Spring City, Tenn., as Unit 2 begins producing electricity for the first time, 43 years after construction began at the site. Standing with him are, from left, are TVA manager of media relations Jim Hopson, site vice president Kevin Walsh, TVA chief nuclear officer Joe Grimes and TVA president and CEO Bill Johnson.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

The TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is photographed on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, near Spring City, Tenn., as Unit 2 begins producing electricity for the first time, 43 years after construction began at the site.

The TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is photographed...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

As the Tennessee Valley Authority prepares to start up its first new nuclear reactor in two decades, federal regulators are again raising concerns about how TVA is handling safety questions raised by plant operators.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Thursday it wants TVA managers to explain how they are responding to concerns voiced by the operations staff at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant near Spring City, Tenn.

The NRC issued an operating license for the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar last year and TVA had planned this month to move the new Watts Bar unit into a hot, criticality mode to begin power generation for the first time.

But NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said Thursday inspectors "found that some operations employees did not feel free to raise safety concerns" in recent months and "there were indications that licensed operators may have received undue influence and direction from TVA staff outside the control room."

While the work environment issues did not lead to any events that affected worker or public safety, the NRC is still reviewing some actions to determine if NRC regulations may have been violated.

"It is extremely important that all nuclear plant employees feel free to raise safety issues with their managers and with the NRC without fear of retaliation," NRC Region II Administrator Cathy Haney said in a statement.

The NRC has called a meeting at its regional headquarters in Atlanta next Tuesday to talk with TVA officials about how they are handling employee safety concerns.

"There are some concerns and it is broader than just the employee concerns program," Hannah said.

In a statement Thursday, TVA acknowledged that "some individuals within the operations organization at Watts Bar are reluctant to raise concerns due to fear of retaliation."

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said the utility "takes this situation very seriously.

"We are actively engaged with the NRC to address this issue in a timely and comprehensive manner and are already implementing corrective actions to re-emphasize the expectation for a respectful work environment that encourages raising concerns," Hopson said. "Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees and the public we serve."

Employee safety concerns raised in 1985 shortly before the first Watts Bar reactor was about to generate power produced a long and costly review of the way TVA handled employee concerns and originally built the twin Westinghouse pressurized reactors at Watts Bar.

Ultimately, Unit 1 at Watts Bar had to be reworked and didn't begin power production until 1996. TVA has been building off and on the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar since 1973.

An internal assessment of the utility's nuclear employee concerns program recently concluded the program was helping address employee concerns raised at TVA nuclear plants. In a report released last month by TVA's Office of Inspector General, auditors concluded TVA "generally address[es] employee concerns in an effective manner."

The IG recommended that managers do a better job of preparing monthly reports and documentation, and suggested that they do more to address and close cases in a timely manner.

"While our testing did no identify any cases that were handled in an unreasonably manner, our review of files identified several areas where documentation could be improved," the auditors said in their final eight-page report.

TVA has spent more than $5 billion over the past four decades on the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar, which is scheduled to be in commercial operations generating more than 1,100 megawatts of power by June.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.