Audit finds weaknesses in how TVA makes corrective actions at nuclear plants

Audit finds weaknesses in how TVA makes corrective actions at nuclear plants

January 30th, 2018 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

The cooling towers at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant emit steam Tuesday in this view from Flat Top Mountain, near Soddy-Daisy.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

This story corrects a previous version that incorrectly suggested that the Inspector General audit was of TVA's employee concerns program, which is different than the corrective action program at the nuclear plants.

Document: TVA inspector general Watts Bar report

Read the TVA inspector general report on employee concerns program at Watts Bar.

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Safety and workplace concerns that forced costly delays and equipment fixes in the past at TVA's nuclear plants are still not always getting proper attention and timely resolution, according to a pair of new audits of TVA's employee concerns program.

In two separate reports released this month, TVA's Inspector General said the federal utility still isn't adequately completing corrective actions needed at the Watts Bar and Browns Ferry nuclear power plants.

"We concluded there was a weakness in the approach that TVA followed in addressing the Corrective Action Plan," the Inspector General report said in a nine-page report on the Watts Bar program. "TVA's approach did not assign accountability or provide oversight to govern the implementation and continued execution for ongoing actions."

The program review concluded there was "ineffective implementation" of five of the 10 actions TVA had committed to make at Watts Bar, which the NRC said in March 2016 had a "chilled work environment" that stifled safety concerns from being raised and addressed.

At TVA's Browns Ferry nuclear plant, TVA's inspector general said some of identified problems and plant corrections  "were not resolved effectively because a corrective action did not adequately address a condition and some actions were not completed by scheduled finish dates."

TVA's internal auditors recommend TVA's senior management "reinforce the importance" of making corrections in a timely, well documented maner to ensure plant problems are appropriately addressed.

David Lochbaum

David Lochbaum

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Document: TVA inspector general Browns Ferry report

Read the TVA inspector general report on employee concerns program at Browns Ferry.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said TVA continues to work to improve the way its processes and "we appreciate the observations and recommendations" from the Inspector General.

"Obviously, we take the concerns of our employees seriously and are committed to continuously improving our processes and policies in this area," Hopson said.

Whistleblower and other employee complaints about how the Watts Bar plant was erected in the 1980s forced TVA to suspend construction of the Spring City, Tenn., plant in 1985 and rebuild some key parts of the reactors, which weren't ultimately finished until 1998 for Unit 1 and 2016 for Unit 2.

The latest IG reports don't identify any unresolved safety issues that threaten the operations or employees at Watts Bar or Browns Ferry and the audits said TVA has planned and completed actions for many of the recommended changes.

TVA audit also found that more than 90 percent of the workers interviewed rated TVA's corrective action program for employee concerns as effective.

The NRC continues to monitor TVA's employee concerns and corrective action program, but regulators authorized TVA to start up a second reactor at Watts Bar in 2016 and the NRC has allowed TVA to continue operations of its other existing reactors.

TVA IG has previously questioned the effectiveness of the TVA employee concerns and correction action programs at Watts Bar. In the latest review, the IG said again that anonymous reports were not always properly routed to the individuals as specified in the procedures. The report said records, at least in some instances, did not exist showing the specified distribution had occurred.

David Lochbaum, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project who previously worked at both the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said such deficiencies "are reflective of TVA's broader safety culture dilemma – TVA doesn't take safety culture seriously."

Lochbaum said in the late 1990s, the Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut was shut down for myriad problems largely stemming from a poor safety culture. In response, that utility created an Ombudsman and sought to address the employee concerns raised through that process, which Lochbaum monitored for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In contrast to that approach at Millstone, Lochbaum said TVA managers are not as committed to their correction action program.

"TVA does some of these activities because they are required to or committed to do so, not because they see the value associated with the tasks," Lochbaum said. "In other words, TVA is lip syncing rather than actually singing the safety culture tune."

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

Updated at 9:02 p.m. on Friday, February 2, 2018.