U.S. NRC Blog

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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.



26 responses to “A Chilling Effect is Not Cool

  1. Concerned Public March 8, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    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. drbillcorcoran April 20, 2016 at 8:31 am

    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. drbillcorcoran April 19, 2016 at 10:24 am

    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. drbillcorcoran April 3, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    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. drbillcorcoran April 3, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    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. drbillcorcoran March 30, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    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. drbillcorcoran March 30, 2016 at 10:19 am

    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.

  8. steamshovel2002 March 29, 2016 at 9:32 am

    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

  9. drbillcorcoran March 28, 2016 at 11:34 am

    How much money has the current CEL cost TVA just for NRC inspection hours?

    • Moderator March 30, 2016 at 12:52 pm

      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

  10. drbillcorcoran March 28, 2016 at 11:33 am

    • 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.

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