This story is featured in today's TimesFreePress newscast.
* Site // 2008 // 2009 // 2010 // 2011 // 2012
* Browns Ferry 1,2 and 3 // 18 // 8 // 12 // 11 // 16
* Sequoyah 1 and 2 // 19 // 6 // 6 // 0 // 19
* Watts Bar 1 // 9 // 3 // 2 // 5 // 21
Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
A new report tracking five years of whistle-blower allegations at the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors found Watts Bar and Sequoyah in the top five for claims in 2012.
Most plants have a small handful of allegations annually, according to data collected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but last year NRC received 21 allegations on Watts Bar, 19 on Sequoyah and 16 on Browns Ferry.
In a report issued April 29, NRC officials state that regulatory analysts probed six plants -- including Watts Bar and Sequoyah -- because of their 2012 allegation numbers.
TVA is the only utility with more than one plant on the list.
That's cause for concern, according to Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety project.
"Workers are like canaries in a coal mine. They are the first to detect problems," said Lochbaum, adding that by federal law the workers must report safety problems.
TVA, like other nuclear operators, has an employee concerns program at each plant. But the number of concerns reported to TVA's in-house program decreased while rising claims were coming to NRC.
NRC analysts noted that TVA had "interpreted the results ... as a lack of confidence in the [employee concern program] and took actions to address that finding."
TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said the utility conducted its own analysis for NRC and took action.
"As cited in the NRC report, contractors and some new hires added during Sequoyah's steam generator replacement project did not use onsite resources to address and report concerns, such as TVA employee concerns or contractor-specific employee concerns groups. Issues normally identified and resolved onsite were reported to the NRC, resulting in a spike in allegations.
"A similar increase ... at Watts Bar stemmed from misperception of a change in fitness-for-duty protocols at the plant," Bradley said.
Spokesman Duncan Mans-field said the protocols, announced in January 2012, involved searches using dogs for drugs and alcohol on people, cars and lockers.
Bradley and Mansfield said that after TVA clarified the misperceptions, allegations at both facilities returned to levels consistent with the rest of the nuclear industry.
"TVA actively encourages our employees to raise concerns by a variety of methods, including through the NRC," Bradley said.
NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said the numbers of allegations made to regulators by workers at individual plants, taken alone, don't tell a complete story. But NRC does use complaint spikes as indicators for future inspection pointers.
"If we see adverse trends, we ask questions. We look at every allegation, and we treat them all very seriously," Hannah said. "If you have large numbers, we would ask the question: Is there something wrong with your [in-house] employee concerns program?"
That's what landed Watts Bar and Sequoyah on the list of plants probed.
Lochbaum said he is concerned that workers "seem to have lost confidence in management and must find outside avenues for raising those concerns, like NRC."
Even worse would be the appearance of a "chilling effect" if workers found reporting concerns brought either no action or retaliation.
"The good news is that NRC's probe did not find 'chilling effect,'" Lochbaum said. "What if other workers found problems that they are afraid to raise to TVA management and don't elect to reach out to NRC?"
Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6346.