The terms “chilling effect” or “chilled work environment” are important ones for the NRC. And they’re not referring to the winter weather.
At the NRC, “chilled” refers to a perception that the raising of safety concerns is being suppressed or discouraged – either outright with discrimination — or by a slow or no response. Depending on whether this perception is held by one person or a group of employees determines whether this is “a chillding effect” or a “chilled work environment.”
In either case, the NRC takes any allegation regarding the suppression of safety concerns seriously.
Recognizing that licensees have the first responsibility for safety and are in the best position to respond promptly to a safety matter, the NRC encourages workers to first raise safety concerns with their management. For this to happen, workers must feel free to raise potential safety issues directly to their management.
The NRC recognizes that if workers are subjected to harassment, intimidation, retaliation, discrimination, or other discouraging behaviors by management for reporting safety concerns, a “chilled” work environment may be created that could inhibit workers from reporting additional safety concerns. If this happens, a valuable source of information for maintaining and improving safety is lost.
In its simplest sense, if a worker at a facility the NRC regulates (or who works in connection with licensed materials) chooses to submit an allegation to the NRC rather than with their employer it may be an indication that the worker is “chilled.” For this reason, the trending of allegation information can provide the NRC with insights into the work environment of our licensees, including whether they are providing a safety conscious work environment.
This past weekend I had the honor of leading a delegation of U.S. officials to an international conference in Japan designed to keep up the global momentum of enhancing nuclear safety after the Fukushima accident.
We met in Koriyama City, some 30 miles west of the scenic Japanese coast, where recovery work continues on the four Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors that were damaged by tsunami-induced flooding and the explosive force of pent-up hydrogen.
In my remarks to our counterparts in the newly installed Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (JNRA) and to the roughly 400 delegates at the conference from across the globe, I stressed that national nuclear regulatory bodies must be independent and buffered from political winds and whims. And at each opportunity, our delegation said that a regulator’s work should be carried out in an open and transparent manner so all can see the reasoning behind decision-making, and that regulators should be funded and staffed at a level to get this important work accomplished.
One of the more important sessions I held was with the newly appointed chairman of the JNRA and three of his Commissioner colleagues. We discussed the challenges ahead as the JNRA embarks on the demanding task of creating an effective independent nuclear regulatory program for Japan. This will be a major undertaking, not easily accomplished. If asked, the NRC will enthusiastically assist JNRA. I am confident that other nations and non-governmental organizations with nuclear experience and expertise will also step forward if their help is requested.
On our first day in Japan we visited the crippled reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi. We approached the scene through silent villages, devoid of people, with weeds growing in abandoned parking lots, and now-empty crop fields. I saw the immense beauty of the countryside and the Japanese coastline. This striking land is now empty and may be unusable for a considerable period; 160,000 people are displaced because of the radiation that escaped these reactors.
We stood atop the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima site, next to the now-covered spent fuel pool. We witnessed the progress made by a full contingent of cleanup workers in remediating the site, a testament to the resilient spirit of the people of Fukushima and Japan. This said, immense work is still ahead at the Fukushima site and the surrounding areas – work that will take decades to complete.
On reflection, I can’t help but be reminded of the important role the NRC performs for the nation; the work we have underway to further enhance reactor safety; and the renewed importance of ensuring no accident like this happens in the United States. I want to be sure that we continue to take the steps necessary to be certain that communities surrounding nuclear reactors are protected and that we’ve done all we can as regulators to prevent and mitigate severe accidents that displace people and contaminate land.