TVA inspector general says safety culture problems remain at Watts Bar

NRC review says TVA is improving employee concerns program

Workers exit the turbine building at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has yet to thaw the "chilled work environment" at its Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant, according to the agency's inspector general.

An outside review of TVA's employee concerns program released this week suggests that the utility has failed to fully correct the way it handles employee safety concerns in its nuclear power program.

Three of every four workers in the Employee Concerns Program expressed reservations about raising safety concerns without fear of retaliation from plant managers, according to a consultants' survey done last year for the TVA Inspector General. TVA's Inspector General Richard Moore said in a letter to the TVA board this week that he "remains concerned about whether TVA corrective actions will bring about sustainable change" at Watts Bar, noting that "challenges still exist in Watts Bar's nuclear safety culture."

TVA President Bill Johnson acknowledged Friday that TVA is still working on how it handles employee concerns at Watts Bar, the newest operating nuclear plant in America. But in an interview with the Times Free Press, Johnson insisted that significant improvements have been made from more than 100 corrective steps, many of them since the consultants' survey was done.

"We know we have a "chilled work environment" and what we've been doing for the past year is working hard to fix it," Johnson said. "We're not ignoring this concern or trying to downplay it. But we are working a plan; we're getting measured against that plan, and we're making progress against that plan. I do think we're getting better and the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has recognized that."

Watts Bar has more trips, NRC complaints than any plant

Last year as TVA started up the unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar, utility employees voiced more concerns to the NRC than at any nuclear plant in the country. The new reactor, which began generating power last fall, also has had a number of unplanned outages since its startup, including a March 29 outage caused by a broken steam condenser on the non-nuclear side of the plant.

The outage is expected to last into next month while workers repair the condenser, which was ripped open when one of its supports failed. The equipment was designed and fabricated decades ago when TVA originally expected to finish both units at Watts Bar in the 1980s and Johnson said workers were unable to re-evaluate the condenser materials when work was restarted to finish the plant more than five years ago.

"The problem is this is in a very tight space and these pieces of steel (needed to be replaced) weigh several tons so the logistics of this are tricky," Johnson said. "But we're already underway with our repairs and we hope to soon be able to say when we can expect to have the plant back."

Although TVA's newest reactor has generated full power only about half the time since it was first activated last May, Johnson said new plants often encounter initial problems that must be resolved and with a $4.7 billion price tag Watts Bar Unit 2 is still "a great deal for the ratepayers" and less than half the cost of other new reactors being built in Georgia and South Carolina, Johnson said.

NRC says TVA improving on "chilled" environment

TVA continues to operate under heightened regulatory scrutiny because of last year's finding of a "chilled work environment, but NRC regulators told TVA last month that TVA has made improvements and there are no outstanding safety problems not being addressed by TVA.

"Based on a review of corrective action documents, interviews with licensee staff, and verification of completed corrective actions, the inspectors determined that overall, corrective actions were timely, commensurate with the safety significance of the issues, and effective, in that conditions adverse to quality were corrected and non-recurring," the NRC said in a March 10 inspection report to TVA. "All staff interviewed indicated that they were willing to raise safety concerns and feel free to raise concerns to their direct supervisors without fear of retaliation."

The NRC said TVA senior management "was aware of the challenges and is taking action to address those challenges" and said management had improved the way they supervise and relate to workers at Watts Bar.

But the NRC staff did identify an apparent violation of regulatory requirements, which could result in enhanced enforcement action, however. Joel Munday, director of NRC's division of reactor projects, said its team "identified weaknesses in the elements of problem identification and problem prioritizing and evaluation."

IG report says TVA gave inaccurate info

In a 118-page report released this week, TVA's inspector general also said employee concerns are not being adequately addressed. Moore charged that TVA "provided inaccurate information in a letter to the NRC" regarding the chilled work environment.

"TVA's continuing denials have been found to be incorrect by the NRC and independent assessors: a chilled work environment exists in at least several departments at Watts Bar and within the Employee Concerns Program itself," the inspector general report said.

The Inspector General hired NTD Consulting Group LLC to survey workers to assess how Watts Bar employees felt about raising safety concerns at the plant and many said they didn't feel free to fully express their views to management.

"When 75 percent of a work group at a nuclear utility perceives that they are working in a chilled environment as is the case with Employee Concerns Program at TVA, it would seem reasonable to conclude that there is a chilled work environment in that group and unreasonable to pass it off as a 'degraded work environment' (as TVA did)," the TVA inspector general report said.

The external consultants report by NTD concluded last fall that there was an "erosion of trust, ineffective communications and a lack of mutual respect across staff at Watts Bar," Moore said in his report.

In response to the Inspector General's report, TVA's management said the NTD analysis "is dated and many program improvements were made over the last year." TVA management also questioned the methodology used by NTD and even questioned the role of the Inspector General in reviewing TVA's nuclear safety concerns program at Watts Bar.

Last year, Watts Bar led the nation among all nuclear power plants in employee complaints made to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. More than half of those complaints were made after the newest unit was started up and became a commercial nuclear unit in September.

Although the number of such concerns has declined so far this year, TVA has continued to lead the nation in number of allegations to the NRC.

While such complaints must be addressed, Johnson said the number suggest that employees and contractors are not afraid to raise safety concerns to the NRC, which has reviewed each and not determined there is any major safety problem at the plant. Such complaints also tend to rise when construction of a new plant is finished and many contractors and employees who worked on the plant are being laid off, Johnson said.

Nuclear critic sees "disturbing picture" at Watts Bar

But Dave Lochbaum, a former NRC inspector and nuclear plant worker who is now director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Chattanooga, said the inspector general report "paints a very disturbing picture of conditions at Watts Bar.

"I monitored safety culture problems at Millstone (1996-2000), Davis-Besse (2002-2004), and Salem/Hope Creek (2004-2005)," Lochbaum said in his assessment of the report. "The problems described in the TVA OIG report are comparable to the unacceptable conditions that existed at Millstone and Davis-Besse. A difference is that the NRC did not allow Millstone or Davis-Besse to operate until those safety culture problems were corrected to an acceptable level."

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said that NRC staffers are reviewing the new inspector general's report, but so far regulators have not identified any safety related issues due to any safety culture problems at Watts Bar.

Contact Dave Flessner at