A Chilling Effect is Not Cool

Roger Hannah
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The NRC Region II office issued a “chilling effect” letter to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar nuclear plant this week, but what exactly does that mean?

The “chilling” has nothing to do with weather, but rather refers to a workplace environment where employees may be hesitant to raise safety concerns for fear of retaliation or because previously raised concerns were not adequately addressed.

wbIn the Watts Bar case and several others before it, the NRC identified situations where some employees told the NRC they might be reluctant to talk to their supervisors, managers or even the NRC about safety issues because they were afraid of potential effects on their jobs. At Watts Bar, these concerns arose in the operations department, but the NRC takes those concerns very seriously whether they are isolated or more widespread.

When the NRC issues a “chilling effect” letter to a nuclear plant or any other licensed facility, it is designed to ensure that those organizations are taking appropriate actions to foster a workplace environment that encourages workers at all levels to raise safety concerns without the fear of retaliation and management to promptly and effectively address the concerns.

The NRC met with TVA officials March 22 to discuss the work environment concerns and the letter issued the following day simply puts into writing the expectations that the NRC has for TVA to address the concerns at the Watts Bar plant.

TVA officials are being asked to provide a plan that describes how work environment issues at the Watts Bar plant will be addressed and then attend another public meeting to discuss both that plan and how the NRC will monitor and inspect any corrective actions.

The NRC is confident that most workers at the Watts Bar plant and throughout the nuclear industry feel safe in raising safety concerns within their own organizations or directly to the NRC. That ability is an important supplement to the NRC inspection program in ensuring the safety of the facilities the agency regulates.

Any attempt to influence that ability will not be tolerated by the NRC and there are other similar letters in the past showing just how uncool the NRC finds any workplace chilling effect.



Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

26 thoughts on “A Chilling Effect is Not Cool”

  1. A SCWE is essential for a NPP. Often however, production pressure and company, plant, department, or individual’s image get in the way. The failing AP1000 projects are a good example. Disclosure is restricted at Sanmen and Haiyang to save face. Vogtle and VC Summer project issues along with China lessons learned are hidden to preserve the viability of the projects and protect the company profits. Those that discuss or expose project short-comings are cutoff or removed.

  2. A nuclear power plant sleaze incident anywhere is a nuclear plant sleaze incident everywhere.

    What were the chilling effects that motivated the falsification? What were the chilling effects that kept the falsification from being surfaced earlier? It is hard to imagine that no one knew about it?

    Is it time for IAEA, NRC, INPO, and NEI to commit openly to integrity being an essential trait of the good safety culture?


    Integrity is achieved when individuals, groups, and organizations do not falsify, fabricate, mislead, misrepresent, turn a blind eye, plagiarize, obfuscate, or otherwise deceive and do not tolerate those who do. Integrity is achieved by owning up to shortfalls. The integrity of individuals reflects the integrity of their leaders.

  3. San Onofre Killed by Cleverness and Silence

    NRC gave Southern California Edison (SCE) enough rope under 10CFR 50.59 and stood by innocently while SCE and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) hung themselves.

    Who at NRC, INPO, SCE, and MHI knew that 50.59 was being abused, misused, violated, and/or misinterpreted and did nothing?

    Jefferson said that the only thing needed for evil men to succeed is for good men to do nothing.

    Perhaps it is equally valid to observe that the only thing needed for incompetent people to prevail is for competent people to do nothing.

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, “If you see fraud and do not say “fraud” you are a fraud.”

    Jon Stewart said, “If you smell something, say something.”

    In the fire service they advocate, “If you see anything dumb, dangerous, or different, report it.”

    This multi-billion dollar fiasco could have been prevented by competence, integrity, compliance, or transparency by SCE, MHI, INPO, or NRC acting independently alone. This is frightening by itself. It bodes ill for the future of nuclear power technology, the safety of which is in the hands of organizations like the ones involved in the self-inflicted mortal wounds at San Onofre Units 2 and 3.

    What were the chilling effects that kept trained, knowledgeable, observant, thoughtful people from speaking up?

  4. Does anyone know the evidentiary basis for the following quotation from the basic NRV blog above?

    “The NRC is confident that most workers at the Watts Bar plant and throughout the nuclear industry feel safe in raising safety concerns within their own organizations or directly to the NRC. That ability is an important supplement to the NRC inspection program in ensuring the safety of the facilities the agency regulates.”

    What would President Reagan have said? “Trust but verify!”

    • Mistaken Trust/ Confidence

    An inescapable fact is that the competent investigation of every harmful event reveals that the causation of the harm includes the mistaken/ naïve/ unwarranted/ gullible/ imprudent trust and confidence in one or more erroneous/ untrustworthy theories, assumptions, standards, devices , procedures, processes, programs, people, institutions , agencies, contractors , and/or conditions. The functional alternatives include monitoring, curiosity, skepticism, and the “questioning attitude.”

    “You get what you inspect; not what you expect.”-An old U.S. Navy proverb;

    “Trust but verify.”-Quoted by President Ronald Reagan

    “A sucker is born every day.”-Attributed to P. T. Barnum

    Observation: The causation of the 2008 Financial Crisis involved, in part, the mistaken trust in the ratings of bond rating agencies even though they were known to have obvious conflicts of interest.

  5. Chilling effects can be of great variety, including blatant illegalities, intended insinuations, and honest miscommunications. The sole common attribute of all chilling effects is that each results in a person not reporting a harmful condition, behavior, action, or inaction.

  6. Not Clogging the Corrective Action Program (CAP):
    At a large meeting the CAP Manager mentioned that resources were being wasted processing adverse condition reports (ACRs) on items that were already in the system. Since the workers could not easily tell what was or was not in the system they stopped writing ACRs when they were in doubt. Chilling Effect.

  7. The staff believes about 100 billable hours of staff time went into assessing and issuing the CEL. Those hours, plus any ongoing and future inspection hours related to the CEL, will be included in the appropriate quarterly fees for the Watts Bar site.

    Alan Blamey
    Reactor Projects Branch Chief/Region II

  8. Saving Taxpayer Dollars:
    At a government nuclear facility, management became concerned about potential taxpayer outrage over paying workers who were not working. Management renegotiated the labor contract to provide that if work stopped workers would be sent home without pay. Result: No more workers expressed safety concerns that would result in work stoppages. Chilling effect.

  9. NRC Office of Enforcement
    I personally know of people that that followed your procedures and NOTHING happened!

    How about posting the numbers of reported infractions by year and the number/types of penalties that resulted from them? For this NRC system to “work” there should be some significant number of findings that result in workplace changes. If that is not happening, then the entire NRC Policy is suspect, since it is not accomplishing what it is designed to do, which is make reactors safer for all and especially for those working on them, not just insulating Operators from having to deal with regulations that they feel don’t apply to them.

    Here is a great example:

    SCE the operator of San Onofre received a White finding with no penalty (lap on the wrist) for installing 4 Replacement Steam Generators (RSGs) that failed almost immediately causing a radioactive leak, which put all of southern California at risk.

    The NRC failed the publics trust by never completing their own investigations (even thought the NRC itself said that the damage was unprecedented):

    1) Not fining SCE, for making a mockery of the NRC 50.59 like-for-like exchange process, (which itself was later reviewed and was decided by the NRC, that few if any changes were warranted).
    2) SCE’s failure to provide the required analytical documentation proving the RSGs were safe.
    3) The NRC buried internal reports that were critical about what happened until it was announced that San Onofre was to be decommissioned, instead of providing them for public distribution in a timely manner. This was especially important since the critical report was delivered to the NRC BEFORE the NRC Region IV AIT report was published (which had no mention of the findings in the critical report) since it was written to support the claims in SCE biased Root Cause.
    4) Not demanding a completed root cause investigation, since SCE’s root cause was based on faulty data, instead of the actual operational data of Unit 3 vs Unit 2. This was done to protect SCE and cover up the NRC role in the RSG debacle. The entire nuclear industry loses because they cannot apply what caused the RSGs to fail at San Onofre, which puts the US nuclear fleet at risk.

  10. Dr. Bill,

    What about the ANO stator drop risk determination difference of professional opinion? One inspector thought according to the rules, a violation level should be a green level instead of a yellow violation level. This inspector seems to be fixated on what the rules said, other than special situations. The NRC said according to their rules he’s right, because the reactor level was so high when the accident began?

    My take on it is the risk determination rules and procedures are so hyper technical and complicated the agency can spin any violation level they want. Nobody outside the industry can understand what a violation level is based on. It is as bad as no rules? No one can understand the rules. Most of the determinations isn’t science or engineering, it’s just ultra-technical governmental people making secret assumptions and it undermines safety culture at most plants.

    Risk determination is the foundation the whole industry is built upon. Inadequate risk determination level with the NRC Seven is the foundation of the 2.206 complaint. Should you always follow bad rules or laws? I wouldn’t be surprised if internal risk determinations is behind Watts Bar. Faulty risk determination is the fruit that brought us Fukushima? An infinite amount of add on expensive safety systems and deregulation guilds won’t protect you from the big one if the risk determination system is broken…inadequate behavior changing system.

    Why didn’t the NRC’s risk determination system predict the open short problem and make people do the right thing before it challenged a plant? Anticipated the shortcoming?The risk determination system is a check valve, benefits only going in one direction. Why didn’t the risk determination system work at San Onofre, ANO, Pilgrim and my favorite baby River Bend. Why do we have to see a accident before we then assume the NRC risk determination system works without evidence to set the violation level? Because Congress said so?

    Whistleblowing is just attention getting. Is he being straight up being fixated on following the rules or is he in his special way bringing to light bigger problems at ANO?

    The risk significant determination system is built on corporate campaign contributions and their lawyers.

    What do you make of this new ANO story?

    DPO Case File for DPO-2015-001

    “The following pdf represents a collection of documents associated with the submittal and
    disposition of a differing professional opinion (DPO) from an NRC employee involving concerns
    about the significance determination of a Yellow finding issued to Arkansas Nuclear One Unit 1
    on June 23, 2014”

    Mike Mulligan
    Hinsdale, NH

  11. • Leadership and Chilling Effects

    An inescapable fact is that unless leaders reliably and relentlessly report nonconformities their leadership by example is creating a chilling effect.

    Observation: The way to succeed in any organization is to get your job done in the situation you are in, not to fix the organization and then get your job done. Thus, the upwardly mobile tend to put systemic corrective action on the back burner.

    Observation: Many nonconformities are, when surfaced, budget busters and schedule busters, hence they are bonus busters.

    Observation: One of the top principles of human behavioral technology is that people do what they see others do. This is especially compelling when the others are successful, admired, and it positions of authority.

  12. The way to succeed in any organization is to get your job done in the situation you are in, not to fix the organization and then get your job done. Thus, the upwardly mobile tend to put systemic corrective action on the back burner.

    The upwardly mobile take incompetence, lack of integrity, noncompliance, and lack of transparency as features of the landscape. Leadership by example is a chilling effect when the leaders do not report the nonconformities they know about.

  13. Laud your and NRC efforts what about Region IV and San Onofre worst record and zero action from IV

  14. Who has links to the root cause analyses of this chilling effect instance and/or other instances of chilling effects?

    What are the harmful conditions, behaviors, actions,and/or inactions that result in chilling effects?

    What are the other harmful condones, behaviors, actions, and/or inactions that were left unreported due to chilling effects?

  15. When the NRC surfaces chilling effects it is prima facie evidence that the following were fatally flawed in this regard:
    Licensee self-assessment
    Licensee problem identification and resolution
    Licensee QA
    Licensee On-site Safety Review Committee
    Licensee Off-site Safety Review Committee
    Previous NRC inspections
    Follow up on previous chilling effect instances

    Which of the above don’t need fixing?

    The Cockroach Principle applies: If you see one cockroach in the middle of the kitchen you can be sure that there are thirty under the fridge.

    The Kitty Litter Principle applies: If you dig under the surface you’ll find the lumps.

  16. Not sure what the details are. I am sure our plant leaders are going to include this in training and seminars!
    It would be interesting to see the true weight this carries through the next days to come in the routines of the NRC and the nations nuclear power industry.

  17. The NRC is trying to put a happy face on a very serious problem, since all nuclear workers know that if they become a whistle blower their career is finished in most cases.

    The NRC has even shared what employees have thought were privileged documents with the NRC only to later find out that their supervisors also knew about them and their author!

    The NRC would be well advised to fine Employers $1 million for each offense, that way employers would be far more careful and we would have a much safer nuclear industry!

  18. • Involvement of Chilling Effects

    An inescapable fact is that when insiders did not report and/or act upon wrongfully harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions the insiders knowing about them were deterred by chilling effects. These chilling effects are part of the indirect causation.

    Observation: Chilling effects are contrary to “measures to assure that conditions adverse to quality are promptly identified and corrected .”

    Observation: Chilling effects undermine programs for problem identification and resolution.

    “The nail that sticks up is hammered down.”-Japanese wisdom

    Observation: No one ever made Admiral by ratting on the Navy.

    Observation: A snitch in time saves nine.

    “What happens on shift stays on shift.”-Typical workplace Omertà

    • Involvement of Authority

    An inescapable fact is that conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions were what they were because those in authority wanted them that way, tolerated their being that way, or didn’t know that they were that way. This applies from the work location to the top governance.

    Observation: Situational awareness is a prerequisite for accountability.

    “What is permitted is promoted.”- Unknown (for now)

    Observation: This has yet to be addressed for Fukushima.

  19. . There may be relevant material relating to the TVA or the NRC in regards to Watts Bar employees reporting of safety issues. INPO and WANO reports are restricted as proprietary information, in this case an excuse to hide safety related information such as occurred in the TVA Browns Ferry case about failure to repair faulty valves, July 2010 INPO Report on TVA’s Brown’s Ferry.

    INPO may have identified short comings in the safety arena at Watts Bar, however we will never know because the reports are hidden from public view or review. SHAME on all involved for not publishing all safety related information in INPO or WANO reports.

  20. In May of 1996 the NRC issued the Freedom of Employees in the Nuclear Industry To Raise Safety Concerns Without Fear of Retaliation; Policy Statement. This is what is commonly known as the Safety Conscious Work Environment (SCWE) policy statement. The NRC’s SCWE Policy Statement applies to licensees, holders of certificates of compliance, applicants for a license, and contractors/subcontractors of any licensee, applicant or certificate holder, including those with a QA Program required by NRC regulations such as vendors.

    The applicability of the policy statement is not limited to license holders. Simply put, the policy statement is applicable to any facility or entity subject to NRC authority.

    If anyone has SCWE concerns at a site, and is not sure if the applicability of the policy, we encourage you to contact us via phone at (800) 368-5642, email us at NRC.Allegation@nrc.gov. For more information visit the NRC’s website http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/regulatory/allegations/safety-concern.html.

    NRC Office of Enforcement

  21. It doesn’t go past me Columbia and Watts Bar chilled environment occurred in 2015. Is it just a coincidence both these happened in 2015? No doubt Columbia nuclear plant should get a chilled environment NRC inspection. So the Columbia whistleblowers went to the news media, while the Watts Bar whistleblower senior reactor operators went to the NRC (Allegation)? I wonder, according to the whistleblowers, does the NRC chilled environment inspection or news media get more corrective action within the plant? I’ll tell you what, it grinds through the gears a lot faster with the unproved public disclosure of problems and the resultant corporate lawyer internal investigation?

    I remember when I was a whistleblower at Vermont Yankee in 1992. Vermont Yankee was getting straight “A plus” grades from the NRC. The troops at my plant seen a drastic decline in safety and performance at the plant. So I wrote a letter to the governor and then accused her of sitting on my safety concerns. I remember as my issues were getting explained in the papers, the NRC stated that VY got very good grades at the plant for many years. It was one of the best operating plants in the USA. Then months later, as I was under a deepening cloud, the senior resident inspector approached me while I was in the plant. He wanted to thank me for my efforts. He said the agency couldn’t see the beginning of the decline in the performance of the plant, as you disclosed your problem. He said now, the NRC could clearly see the decline.

    My blog:

    “Junk Nuclear Plant Safety Culture: Why did Columbia and Watts Bar Emerge in 2015”

    It is noted the first stage Columba whistleblower internal corporate lawyer investigation stated “There has been a decline in performance at Energy Northwest’s nuclear power plant near Richland, the Columbia Generating Station…”.The NRC’s 2015 assessment of Columbia notes no such decline in performance. Why is there so much daylight between the Columbia’s internal whistleblower investigation and the NRC current annual assessment?

    Personally I think the term “chilled environment” (impaired safety culture) is misnamed through campaign contributions. Davis Besse hole in the head is a chilled environment that got away from everyone. Safety culture should be another safety limit: “A restriction or range placed upon important process variables that are necessary to reasonably protect the integrity of the physical barriers that guard against the uncontrolled release of radioactivity.” So any detectable so called chilled environment is a violation of a safety limit and requires an immediate plant shutdown. Especially seen and perceived by many people?

    You know, another one of these societal deterrence tools.

    Mike Mulligan
    Hinsdale, NH

  22. I have experienced a similar chilled environment but the company is not yet a licensee. They are in the middle of designing a first-of-a-kind nuke, and their attitude is the NRC’s rules don’t apply to them yet.

  23. This also happened during final construction / licensing for WBN 1 and Sequoyah 1 & 2 Restart in the mid 1980’s. Besides, dismissing a federal employee or contractor as TVA employees and contractors are… it near impossible as they are a protected arrogant culture.

    Makes the high INPO rating trivial.

    takes employees to tell the NRC that Site management is not of the caliber of technical conscience they are purported to be. Seems the NRC has a weakness in performance monitoring.

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