Monday, November 14, 2016

NRC Identifies Nuclear Safety Culture Problems at Watts Bar. What a Surprise.

Watts Bar
A recent NRC inspection report* was very critical of both the Safety Conscious Work Environment (SCWE) and the larger Nuclear Safety Culture (NSC) at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) Watts Bar plant.  This post presents highlights from the report and provides our perspective on the situation. 

The inspection was a follow-up to a Chilling Effect Letter (CEL)** the NRC issued to Watts Bar in March, 2016.  We reviewed the CEL on March 25, 2016.

The inspection team conducted focus groups and interviews with staff and management.  “. . . the inspection team identified deficiencies in the safety conscious work environment across multiple departments.  Although nearly all employees indicated that they were personally willing to raise nuclear safety concerns, many [nearly half] stated they did not feel free to raise concerns without fear of retaliation.  In addition, most employees did not believe that concerns were promptly reviewed or appropriately resolved, either by their management or via the Corrective Action Program [CAP].” (p. 5) 

While discussing management’s response to the CEL, employees were cautiously optimistic that their work environment would improve although they could not cite any specific examples of improvements.  Management putting their “spin” on the CEL and prior instances of retaliation against employees contribute to a lack of trust between employees and management. (p. 6)

In general, “. . . most employees also noted that there was a strong sense of production over safety throughout the organization. . . . Focus group participants provided examples of disrespectful behavior [by management], intimidation and shopping around work to other employees or contractors who would be less likely to raise issues. . . . all focus groups stated that they could enter issues into the CAP; however, most believed the CAP was ineffective at resolving issues.  The CAP was characterized as a problem identification, but not a problem resolution tool.” (p. 7)

Employees also expressed a lack of confidence in the plant’s Employee Concerns Program. (pp. 7-8)

Our Perspective

The chilled work environment and other NSC issues described in the inspection report did not arise out of thin air.  TVA has a long history of deficient SC at its plants.  Our March 25, 2016 post included a reference to a 2009 NRC Confirmatory Order, still in effect, covering TVA commitments to address past SCWE issues at all three of their nuclear sites.

Browns Ferry, another TVA plant, was a regular character in our 2012 series on the NRC’s de facto regulation of NSC.  As we noted on July 3, 2012 “Browns Ferry has reported SC issues including production and schedule taking priority over safety (2008), “struggling” with SC issues (2010) and a decline in SC (2011).  All of this occurred in spite of multiple licensee interventions and corrective actions.”  As part of their penance, Browns Ferry management made a presentation on their SC improvement actions at the 2014 NRC Regulatory Information Conference.  See our April 25, 2014 post for details.

For a little icing on the nuclear cake, our March 25, 2016 post also summarized the TVA Chief Nuclear Officer’s compensation plan, which doesn’t appear to include any financial incentives for establishing or maintaining a strong NSC.  .

TVA’s less-than-laser focus on safety is also reflected in their non-nuclear activities.  For example, the Dec. 22, 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill was the largest such spill in U.S. history.  It was not some “act of God”; neighbors had noticed minor leaks for years and TVA confirmed there had been prior instances of seepage.***  

Bottom line: This unambiguous and complete inspection report includes multiple, significant deficiencies but it’s not new news.

Postscript:  On April 13, 2016 we asked “Is Entergy’s Nuclear Safety Culture Hurting the Company or the Industry?”  We could ask the same question about TVA.  The answer in TVA’s case is “Probably not” primarily because it is a federal corporation and thus is perceived differently from investor-owned nuclear enterprises.  For political reasons, public entities, including TVA and the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities, are deemed too important to fail.  As a consequence, the bar for tolerable performance is lower and their shortcomings do not appear to infect the perception of private entities that conduct similar activities.

A. Blamey (NRC) to J.W. Shea (TVA), “Watts Bar Nuclear Plant - NRC Problem Identification and Resolution Inspection (Part 1); and Safety Conscious Work Environment Issues of Concern Follow-up; NRC Inspection Report 05000390/2016007 and 05000391/2016007,” (Oct. 26, 2016).  ADAMS ML16300A409.

Chilled Work Environment for Raising and Addressing Safety Concerns at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant,” (March 23, 2016).  ADAMS ML16083A479.

Wikipedia, “Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill.”  Retrieved Nov. 11, 2016.

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