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.

 

 

Crossing the Finish Line at Watts Bar

Joey Ledford
Public Affairs Officer
Region II

Watts Bar Unit 2, the nation’s first new commercial nuclear unit in a generation, received its NRC operating license last October and is closing in on its first nuclear chain reaction. (Power production is still a ways off.) The NRC is still on the job as the staff transitions to operational inspection duties.

An NRC inspector looks on as TVA workers install components at Watts Bar Unit 2.
An NRC inspector looks on as TVA workers install components at Watts Bar Unit 2.

The agency’s Region II-based construction inspection staff, supplemented by headquarters staff, have booked more than 127,000 hours making sure the new unit has been built according to its design specifications. More than 350 agency inspectors and other staff have been involved in the inspection and project management effort, which geared up in earnest in 2008 when the Tennessee Valley Authority committed to completing the unit it had initially started building in 1973 and later suspended.

The Watts Bar plant, located about 50 miles northeast of Chattanooga, Tenn., has a unique history. Unit 1, which also traces its roots to 1973, was the last U.S. plant to come on line when it was finally licensed in 1996 after a similarly lengthy construction hiatus.

When work resumed on Unit 2, the NRC recalled a handful of staffers who had been involved in inspecting work on the sister unit to ensure “knowledge transfer.”

“Our goal is to verify the design is accurate,” said James Baptist, who was a team leader for several years during Watts Bar 2 construction and has recently become chief of the Region II branch overseeing the transition from construction to operation. “We want to ensure Unit 2 looks and operates just like Unit 1. It greatly assists the effort when you have a working model right beside you.”

As is the case with most NRC inspection efforts, the corps of construction resident inspectors led the way, reporting to the site daily and amassing a big percentage of those 127,000 hours.

“Everything came through the residents in terms of what was going on at the site,” said Chris Even, who recently transitioned from senior construction project manager to senior project inspector in the new branch overseeing the transition. “We always relied on the residents for knowing exactly what was going on.”

The workload was huge from the beginning, with more than 550 construction inspection items to be inspected and closed. And Baptist noted that even though the plant was designed in the 1970s, it’s built to today’s standards.

“They purposely built Unit 2 to be a mirror image of Unit 1 while including all the updated safety enhancements that have accrued over the last 25 or 30 years,” he said.

For example, Watts Bar is the first plant in the nation to comply with all the NRC’s post- Fukushima upgrades as well as the newest cybersecurity requirements.

One might think that with the license issued and the plant about to start up that the NRC inspection effort would be winding down. Baptist said that is not the case.

“We still have our foot on the gas,” he said.

Just as the NRC inspectors were dedicated to make sure Watts Bar Unit 2 was constructed and tested according to the design and NRC regulatory requirements, they will continue to maintain that vigilance as the plant begins and continues to operate.