NRC inspection finds 'substantial weaknesses' in TVA safety culture at new nuclear plant

NRC inspection finds 'substantial weaknesses' in TVA safety culture at new nuclear plant

November 1st, 2016 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Both cooling towers are in operation at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gallery: TVA completes first new U.S. nuclear reactor in the 21st century

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NRC sets meeting on work environment

At 6 p.m. Thursday at the Comfort Inn hotel in Athens, Tenn. (2811 Decatur Pike), the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will discuss the corrective action program the Tennessee Valley Authority adopted after regulators said TVA had a “chilled work environment” at the Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant and employees were reluctant to voice safety concerns. Persons may listen to the meeting via a toll-free teleconference line available from Alan Blamey at the NRC at 404-997-4415 or by email at alan.blamey@nrc.gov.

Document: NRC letter

Read the letter from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to TVA.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has improved the environment for workers to raise safety concerns at its newest nuclear plant, but a new regulatory review of TVA's work environment at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant concludes the utility still is not maintaining an adequate safety culture.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission met with 136 workers in 17 focus groups at Watts Bar this summer after concluding in March that TVA had "a chilled work environment" at the Spring City, Tenn., plant that could discourage employees or contractors from raising safety concerns.

"Focus groups within and outside of the operations department indicated the existence of broader, previously unrecognized challenges to the maintenance of a positive safety culture, which continued to challenge the safety conscious work environment," Alan Blamey, branch chief of reactor projects in the Atlanta office of the NRC, said in a letter to TVA last week. "The (NRC inspection) team identified substantial weaknesses in various attributes which were found to be pervasive across various work units."

Blamey said nearly half of those interviewed by the NRC at Watts Bar "believed retaliation was a potential outcome for raising concerns."

"In addition, most employees did not believe that concerns were promptly reviewed or appropriately resolved, either by their management or via the corrective action program," Blamey told the TVA.

The NRC has asked Watts Bar officials to respond to ongoing concerns that managers don't want to hear or don't adequately respond to employee concerns at Watts Bar. The NRC has asked TVA to explain how it will ensure workers voice safety concerns without retaliation during a meeting set for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Comfort Inn in Athens, Tenn.

"The NRC has determined that, given the current state of the site's safety culture, you are not meeting the Commission's expectation that licensees establish and maintain a positive safety culture and safety conscious work environment," Blamey said in a letter to TVA's head of regulatory licensing last week.

In March, the NRC issued a letter to TVA expressing concern that some operations employees may not have felt comfortable raising safety concerns at the plant, especially among operators who were running Watts Bar Unit 1 while TVA crews were finalizing work on a second reactor at Watts Bar.

TVA, which began operating Unit 1 at Watts Bar in 1996, began power generation at Watts Bar Unit 2 on a limited basis in May and declared Unit 2 a commercial reactor last month.

In the 1980s when Watts Bar was first being built, whistle blowers raised questions about the installation of electric cables and other plant equipment, ultimately forcing a lengthy and costly review and rework of some plant systems that helped delay the completion of the plant for another decade. At the time, TVA also created a new employee concerns program to independently receive and review safety concerns raised by workers.

In March of this year as TVA was finalizing plans to activate Unit 2, the NRC expressed concern that some licensed operators may have been unduly influenced by TVA managers outside the control room. Those influences could cause what is described as a "chilling effect" on the plant's work environment.

"Our goal in this ongoing effort is to ensure that all nuclear power plant employees always feel free to express concerns about safety issues within their organization and to the NRC directly without fear of retaliation," said Cathy Haney, the region administrator for the NRC office in Atlanta.

At Thursday's meeting, TVA is expected to provide an update on its corrective actions related to the work environment at the plant. NRC officials will discuss the agency's plans to continue to provide oversight regarding how TVA allows and responds to employee concerns.

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said regulators have seen progress by TVA, "but obviously for something involving the work culture we need to see improvements sustained over time."

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said utility employees have indicated their willingness to raise their concerns "and we're working to make sure that they understand that they are supported and are able to raise their issues" about any safety concerns about the plant or its operations.

"We are still working on building and improving trust among our employees," Brooks said. "We've made improvements in our work environment, but we obviously have some more work to do because it takes time."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at423- 757-6340.