Whistleblowers and the NRC: Do as I say, not as I don’t

By Dave Lochbaum | February 23, 2017

Nuclear cooling towerPart of the bridge to zero emissions?

Workers at nuclear power plants form the front line of nuclear safety: They are the ones most likely to detect safety problems when they arise. For example, it was nuclear power plant workers who reported that reactors were being operated with broken and impaired safety equipment at the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear plants in New Jersey in 2004. And it was plant workers who alerted officials in 2013 to a security manager who permitted unqualified individuals to hold security positions at the Palisades, Michigan, nuclear power plant. And it was plant workers who discovered extensive corrosion of the reactor vessel head at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in 2002, in which a small amount of cooling water that had been leaking from the reactor vessel over an extended period of time had corroded away nearly six inches of the metal vessel, leaving only a quarter-inch-thick layer. Had that thin layer been breached, the rapid loss of cooling water through the opening could have caused an accident worse than Three Mile Island.

The list goes on and on.

A poor safety culture is often at the root of the problem; in the case of Davis-Besse, for example, management repeatedly stymied cleaning and inspection efforts due to cost and the pressure to restart the reactor as soon as possible.

Not surprisingly, workers who report such things to management are sometimes ignored, retaliated against, passed over for promotions, or otherwise exposed to a chilled work environment.

Which is where the second line of nuclear safety defense is supposed to come in: the inspectors and reviewers of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the governmental body that acts as the nation’s traffic cop overseeing US power plants. The NRC has long believed that a proper “safety culture” is vital to nuclear safety—one where decisions are made and actions taken with a firm commitment to preserving safety margins. While the NRC does not routinely and directly assess safety culture at nuclear power plants (that responsibility falls to a plant’s owners), the NRC often gets indications that problems may exist, which it then investigates. The commission has the power to issue warnings, monitor activities, prod plant owners to make fixes, order owners to take extra steps, or issue fines in the millions of dollars, all in order to protect the public and create a proper safety culture.

But for this vital second line of defense to work, the NRC’s own workers must be confident that they can report any problems they observe without reprisal and that the NRC will address them. However, there are ample signs that the NRC has an improper safety culture itself, according to a newly issued report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Just how bad is it? The signs of a poor or improper safety culture can remain elusive until they cause problems approaching epidemic proportions. But one early indication of the health of a safety culture is how confident nuclear plant workers feel that they will not face reprisals for reporting bad practices; another key indicator is whether workers feel that they are only opening their mouths to deaf ears.

By these standards, the signs are not good for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s own safety culture.

For example, a survey of the workforce at the Millstone, Connecticut nuclear plant during the depth of its problems in 1997—when the facility was found to be improperly cooling irradiated fuel bundles from the reactor core—revealed that 11 percent reported knowing co-workers who would not raise safety concerns out of fear of reprisals. A survey of the NRC’s workforce in 2013 revealed that 53 percent reported that co-workers would not raise safety concerns.

On a similar note, in 1997, 39 percent of the workforce at Millstone reported knowing co-workers who had raised safety concerns and experienced negative repercussions. In 2013, 75 percent of the NRC’s workers who had raised a safety concern reported feeling negative reactions in the form of lower performance appraisals and being excluded from work activities.

The NRC intervened at the San Onofre, California, nuclear power plant in 2010 after 25 percent of the workers who contacted the NRC reported feeling that they would be retaliated against for voicing safety concerns. Meanwhile, a 2012 survey of the NRC’s workforce revealed that 39 percent felt unable to raise a safety concern to their supervisors without fear of retaliation.

Taken together, what all these statistics show is that when it comes to chilled work environments, the NRC may have the largest refrigerator in town. According to several different reports, NRC staff show a marked fear of reprisal, a reluctance to formally disagree with an NRC position, and a reluctance to use their right to refuse to sign onto technical documents whose contents they disagree with.

Further comparisons are described in the recently released Union of Concerned Scientists’ report on the NRC and its safety culture. They show that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the same signs, or worse signs, than those that consistently prompted the agency to take steps to correct improper safety cultures at nuclear plants over the past 20 years.

NRC’s pinball wizards. The title character in The Who’s rock opera Tommy is said to be a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid [who] sure plays a mean pinball.” If art imitates life, the NRC’s senior managers may be pinball wizards themselves.

The NRC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) periodically surveys the NRC’s safety culture and climate. The OIG’s surveys repeatedly reveal a wide gap between how the NRC’s senior managers view conditions and how the rest of the workforce sees them. In the most recent OIG survey—conducted in 2015—more than three-quarters of the NRC’s senior and mid-level managers had positive opinions as to how the agency handles differing views; fewer than half of the overall workforce shared that perspective. It is wicked hard to solve problems one cannot see.

Safety culture intervention. The owners of the nuclear power plants at Salem and Hope Creek, Palisades, Davis-Besse, Millstone, and other facilities did not recognize that their plants had improper safety cultures and intentionally gambled against growing numbers of safety problems that might someday lead to meltdown. They saw the same evidence the NRC saw, but while the NRC saw glasses half-empty, the owners saw glasses half-full. Fortunately, the NRC did not wait for the glasses to empty before intervening. The NRC’s interventions restored proper safety cultures at the nuclear plants.

The evidence is clear that the NRC has ample signs of an improper safety culture itself. Yet its senior managers seem to see a glass half-full. The US Congress needs to intervene with the NRC just as the agency intervened at plants with comparable, or lesser, signs of safety culture distress. With aging nuclear reactors and shrinking maintenance budgets, the American public needs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be a nuclear RoboCop—and not a Sergeant Schultz.

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