OSHA orders TVA to rehire nuclear worker fired after raising safety concerns

Sen. Markey questions TVA's "chilled" work environment

In this Oct. 19, 2016, staff file photo, workers exit the turbine building at TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant near Spring City, Tenn.
In this Oct. 19, 2016, staff file photo, workers exit the turbine building at TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant near Spring City, Tenn.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which is already under heightened regulatory oversight for its "chilled" workplace environment at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, has been ordered to reinstate a former agency nuclear employee TVA previously fired after she raised safety concerns about the utility's nuclear program.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said Monday it has ordered TVA to rehire the worker, a so-called "whistleblower" because she raised safety concerns at work, and to pay her $123,460 in back pay, plus $33,835 in compensatory damages.

OSHA investigators determined the TVA terminated the employee after she raised concerns about required technical specification surveillance and participated in an investigation by TVA's Office of General Counsel of a chilled work environment, which are both protected activities under federal whistleblower protection laws.

OSHA policies don't allow the agency to release the name of the employee. But OSHA said in a statement Monday that TVA initially placed the worker on paid administrative leave and later terminated her in retaliation for raising nuclear safety concerns.

In addition to reinstatement and compensation, OSHA ordered TVA to pay the attorneys' fees of the fired worker, clear her file of any reference to the issues involved in the investigation; refrain from retaliating against her again, and post a notice informing all employees of their whistleblower protections.

"This order underscores the U.S. Department of Labor's commitment to protect workers who exercise their right to raise safety concerns without the fear of retaliation," OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer said in a statement Monday.

TVA spokeswoman Malinda Hunter said TVA is reviewing the OSHA order, which she said relates to concerns in the past and could be appealed within the next 30 days.

(Read more: Changes to TVA's whistleblower program draw fire from critics)

"Our priority continues to be the safety of our employees and the public, and we are working to ensure healthy safety conscious work environments across our fleet," she said.

The worker did not work at Watts Bar, which the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in 2006 had a "chilling" environment for workers to raise safety concerns and has maintained extra oversight at the plant ever since.

But the OSHA order comes as the NRC is being pressured by U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., to review TVA's employee concerns program and to communicate to workers that they have a legal right to raise any safety concerns.

TVA began implementing a new approach to employee concerns this spring to encourage workers to first raise any problems to their managers to help ensure better and quicker responses to such concerns.

TVA Nuclear Chief Tim Rausch, who joined the federal utility last October, said he is working to improve the work culture at TVA's nuclear plants and to encourage all workers to voice their opinions and concerns to their bosses.

"There is a lot of pride and ownership in our employees and they all want to be part of a team that does great things and helps TVA accomplish its mission," he said. "The culture of safety is always an ongoing part of our job that needs to be attended to and it's underlying part of our mission."

Rausch said last week new management-level employees have been hired to help handle employee concerns. They replaced the former employee concerns program workers who operated separately from TVA's nuclear management system.

(Read more: Audit finds weaknesses in how TVA makes corrective actions at nuclear plants)

In a memo to employees this spring, TVA said the new approach is a "more focused model for addressing employee concerns" and is similar to what other successful utilities are doing in their nuclear programs. The memo said employee feedback indicated that the former employee concerns program "is not an effective alternative avenue for raising concerns."

TVA President Jeff Lyash said earlier this month he is trying to promote a better work culture at TVA to encourage workers and their bosses to address any safety concerns as they arise.

"That is the best approach for raising concerns and making sure we have a safety-first culture," he said.

Rausch said TVA employees still have a number of ways to communicate any concerns they have about plant operations other than talking to their boss, including voicing safety problems through TVA's corrective action program, making complaints to TVA's independent Inspector General or talking with the outside regulators at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But Washington, D.C., attorney Billy Garde, who is representing some TVA employees whose jobs were phased out in the change in the Employee Concerns Program, said that TVA fired four managers from its Nuclear Employee Concerns Program and a fifth was forced to retire under the changes TVA made in its employee concerns program. TVA says the displaced workers were all offered other jobs.

"While TVA's words pay lip-service to the 'vital role' played by the Employee Concern Program (ECP), if TVA really understood the necessity and significance of the ECP program in its own strong safety culture, it would not have taken this outrageous action," Garde said after the changes were made..

In response to the requests made by Markey, NRC Chairwoman Kristin Svinicki said last week that the NRC staff "has communicated and continues to communicate with TVA employees that they can raise concerns to the NRC" and such complaints are protected against retaliation under federal whistleblower protections.

"The NRC expects nuclear power plant licensees to establish and maintain a safety-conscious work environment in which employees are free and encouraged to raise safety concerns and where such concerns are promptly reviewed," Svinicki said in her letter to Markey.

Another NRC inspection of TVA's employee concerns program is planned this fall, Svinicki said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.