TVA nuclear power officials acknowledged Tuesday that plant operators at the Watts Bar plant may have felt undue schedule and work pressures late last year as the utility conducted final construction and equipment testing of the Unit 2 reactor - the first new nuclear unit to be built in America in two decades.
Mike Balduzzi, TVA's vice president of nuclear operations, told regulators during a hearing in Atlanta that TVA's effort to improve plant performance at all nuclear plants, combined with the extra workloads on plant operators from the startup work on the new Watts Bar reactor, created extra stress and a potentially hostile environment for employee concerns.
"Some members of our operating department have indicated a reluctance to raising concerns due to a perception of retaliation," Balduzzi told regional officials with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "This is not a work environment that is acceptable to us. We accept our responsibility for it, and we have committed to addressing our findings so we can improve and sustain a healthy work environment."
Employee surveys at the end of 2015 at Watts Bar revealed "a degraded work environment," which Balduzzi said TVA is committed to changing. Balduzzi pledged safety is more important than schedules at Watts Bar and TVA is working to deliver that message to employees and supervisors through staff meetings, off-site management retreats and outside reviews of employee satisfaction and feedback.
"Having high standards should not result in employees being reluctant to raise issues," said Kevin Walsh, site vice president at Watts Bar.
Federal regulators raised concerns after hearing that operations personnel at Watts Bar didn't feel free to question procedures or work loads that might affect how the plant operates.
"Some of the operations personnel did not feel free to raise safety concerns and there were some indications that licensed operators may have received undue influence and direction from TVA staff outside of the control room," Cathy Haney, regional administrator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said during Tuesday's hearing. "While the work environment did not lead to any events that led to worker or plant safety, 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."
The NRC did not order TVA to slow or halt any work at Watts Bar Unit 2 because of the problems with the employee concerns program. NRC officials said they will assess TVA's comments and program changes and issue their findings in the next quarterly report about Watts Bar next week. The NRC could initiative an enforcement action or degrade its ratings of Watts Bar in that quarterly report.
After 43 years of construction starts and stops, TVA is preparing this spring to begin power production at a second unit at Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn.
Employee safety concerns raised in the mid 1980s forced a long and costly delay in starting up Watts Bar Unit 1 after safety problems were discovered. But TVA and NRC officials said Tuesday they have not found deficient equipment or procedures.
However, both NRC and TVA leaders said they want a more open atmosphere for employees to raise safety concerns about Watts Bar.
Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree press.com or at 423-757-6340.