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Staff Photo by John Rawlston / The TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tennessee is one of three TVA nuclear plants and the site of where some employees claim to have been harassed or dismissed for raising safety concerns.

A year ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority revamped the utility's employee concerns program to offer what officials said was a more proactive way for workers to raise concerns and for TVA to address nuclear plant problems.

TVA officials hoped the approach would be more effective in hearing and responding to its workers and help the federal utility be removed from a 2-year-old regulatory watch list for having a "chilled" work environment.

TVA Nuclear Chief Tim Rausch said preliminary results indicate the new approach is more effective in getting concerns to managers and getting legitimate problems addressed.

"Our work is certainly not done and as a continuous improvement organization we are never satisfied, but we are seeing positive results so far," Rausch said. "Our representatives are going into the field to ask people what they want to talk about and to encourage them to raise their concerns. If there is an issue, we start to look into that much faster than under our previous program."

Rausch said the the number of interactions with TVA nuclear employees is up significantly "because of our proactive, in-the-field approach," and he said the new process is addressing problems "in a matter of hours, not days."

But the new employee concerns program and the staffing changes TVA made to implement the change are generating their own employee concerns from critics who claim the federal utility is still stifling workers from raising questions about potential safety problems.

An attorney who represents most of the workers in the previous program whose jobs were eliminated or changed by the change filed a petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year asking the NRC Petition Review Board to conduct a review of the changes. Billie Pirner Garde, a Washington D.C. attorney, last week appealed directly to the staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, asking for a regulatory review of the changes.

Garde said TVA "is too embedded in a culture of avoidance." In a letter to NRC's executive director for operations, Margaret Doane, Garde said the previous Employee Concerns Program with staffers at each of the three nuclear plants, plus the Chattanooga Office Complex downtown, provided "the only honest insight into the dysfunctional organization."

Two of the former employee concerns program managers complained that the TVA's culture and mindset has not yet embraced a safety-first approach.

Melody Babb, a former employee concerns program senior manager at Sequoyah who currently works as a senior quality assurance program manager at TVA, said the new employee concerns program "has continued to harass the previous ECP (employee concerns program) employee even though the harassment has been reported to a senior manager."

"Unfortunately, my experience at TVA, as well as the experience of those individuals who have brought me their concerns over the years, has been that retaliation for raising safety concerns has been, and remains, a serious problem with the safety culture at TVA," she said.

Frank Bausemer, who recently retired from TVA after 35 years, said "there is attitude of always trying to push the envelope on safety issues that might impact plant operations, pushing beyond conservative decision making, and taking risks and short cuts that erode the margin of safety.

"This mindset pervades the site culture, and anyone who tries to operate in a different mindset, putting rigor into safety expectations, is beaten down by management actions and attitudes that force conformance, or the employee faces termination or is removed in some other way," he said.

The NRC cited TVA is 2018 for having a "chilled" work environment in its nuclear power program and has maintained heightened oversight of the utility ever since. NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said TVA has made improvements, but the NRC has yet to lift its finding against TVA.

TVA employees still have the right to raise their concerns internally at TVA to the independent Office of Inspector General or outside to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the fourth quarter of 2019 and the first three months of 2020, TVA nuclear employees raised only three concerns with the NRC, compared with more 10 in a similar period under the previous program.

But TVA continues to deal with employees in the past who claim they were dismissed or penalized for raising safety concerns about one of TVA's three nuclear power plants.

In March, the head of regulatory enforcement at the NRC said TVA improperly fired two nuclear engineers after they raised safety concern from 2015 to 2018. In January, the U.S. Department of Labor said TVA fired a nuclear engineer who blew the whistle on safety concerns and lied about it.

The Labor Department is ordering TVA to give Beth Wetzel her job back and shell out more than $200,000 in back pay, lost bonuses and benefits, compensatory damages and legal fee, although that case is still under review.

As TVA continues to wrestle with employee concerns from years ago, Rausch said TVA managers today are stressing a "safety first" culture today. Rausch said he urges employees to raise their concerns and issues with their managers when they see problems.

The NRC is still reviewing the petition asking for a review of TVA's new approach to employee concerns, Hannah said.

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

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