TVA vows to thaw chilled atmosphere, better handle employee safety concerns

Watts Bar nuclear plant.

Under regulatory pressure to change the way employee concerns are handled, TVA says it is trying to thaw the often chilled atmosphere for employees to raise safety concerns at its Watts Bar nuclear plant.

TVA's top nuclear officials said Tuesday they have revamped management procedures, coached bosses on how to better treat workers and conducted surveys and employee meetings to better encourage and respond to safety issues raised by workers.

"We recognize that the Watts Bar environment, and specifically in operations, had degraded to a point where some operators felt reluctant to raise issues - we get that and we own that," Mike Balduzzzi, senior vice president at TVA, told nuclear regulators Tuesday. "We firmly believe it is necessary for our employees to feel free to raise nuclear safety issues without fear of retaliation and, in fact, they should expect to be complimented for doing so."

Despite such reassurances, however, a nuclear watchdog group questioned why TVA keeps having problems with employee concerns at its nuclear plants. During a hearing before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's regional staff in Atlanta, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project said the corrections program outlined by TVA "is troubling in that it shows how blind TVA continues to be" in its culture and response to worker concerns about potential safety problems at nuclear plants.

"It's disappointing for a company that has gone through a number of safety-conscious work environment problems repeatedly over a number of years can't recognize signs of those problems until someone else calls their attention to it," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who once worked at the NRC and now studies the industry for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Since they are having trouble figuring out that they have those problems, there's not much confidence that they will be able to solve problems that are invisible to them."

In March, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chided TVA for fostering a "chilled work environment" that discourages plant operators at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant from raising safety concerns about operations at the twin-reactor plant near Spring City, Tenn. In response, TVA has conducted two company-wide employee meetings at Watts Bar and surveyed and met with all operators to assess their opinions and reinforce management's commitment to receiving and responding to employee concerns.

The NRC cited the Unit 1 reactor at Watts Bar for the failure in its employee concerns program this spring as the utility prepares to activate a second reactor at Watts Bar. A management program started last year for plant excellence, combined with the extra workload of the Unit 2 startup, may have unduly created a stifled atmosphere for some operators to feel free to raise concerns and run the plant as they deem appropriate for maximum safety, officials said.

TVA was forced in the 1980s to delay for 11 years the startup of its first reactor at Watts Bar, in part, because TVA failed to adequately receive and respond to safety concerns raised by whistle blowers and safety review groups at the plant prior to completion of the plant. Upon investigation, regulators found that electrical cables had been improperly installed and safety inspections of how equipment was installed were sometimes lacking or insufficient.

TVA created an employee concerns program in response. But TVA officials acknowledged that in the pressure to keep Watts Bar Unit 1 running and meeting high performance standards while construction was ongoing in the adjacent Unit 2 reactor, plant operators may have felt undue pressure from managers not to raise troubling questions or to limit plant operations.

Paul Simmons, who was named site director at Watts Bar earlier this month, said TVA conducted a root cause analysis of the "chilled" atmosphere among plant operators and found that such workers were feeling pressure to keep performance up and not to raise safety concerns that might jeopardize management goals.

"I personally acknowledge that the chilled work environment existed in the operations department and that I and the senior Watts Bar team are accountable for taking aggressive actions to improve the work environment in a thoughtful and sustainable manner," he said.

The NRC is not withholding its licensing approval for the startup of Unit 2 at Watts Bar and, so far at least, has not signaled any intent to fine TVA for the employee safety concerns problems since there is no evidence that the chilled work environment over the past couple of years resulted in any safety problems at the plant. But regulators said TVA needs to do better and will watch the utility to make sure that it does.

Catherine Haney, director of the NRC's Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, said the NRC and its resident inspectors at Watts Bar will "continue to monitor TVA to ensure they are continuing to engage in staff and moving forward in implementing these new steps."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.