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A second confirmatory order went out to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to correct safety concerns at Watts Bar Nuclear Reactor in Spring City, TN, said officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The order, issued July 28, includes an extensive list of corrective actions TVA must perform to address Watts Bar’s poor safety culture track record.

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This is the second order of its kind the Commission has issued to TVA regarding the company’s safety culture.

The NRC first ordered TVA to make changes to improve its safety culture in 2009, after two investigations revealed a maintenance mechanic at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama was demoted for raising a safety concern.

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Last fall, NRC inspectors found TVA violated a federal regulation when the company prematurely reported it had implemented employee protection regulations on adverse employment actions, as laid out in the 2009 order.

The NRC issued the new confirmatory order in place of a civil penalty after a June 9 mediation session to settle TVA’s violation of the federal regulation. 

“It’s primarily ensuring that we have a sufficient degree of rigor in our processes to determine the potential impact an adverse employment action could have on the overall work environment,” said TVA Spokesman Jim Hopson.

“Even if that action is legitimate, one has to consider how that will be perceived by others within the same organization.”

NRC Region II Administrator Cathy Haney said the Commission holds in high value the ability of employees to raise safety concerns without fear of reprisal.

“We were disappointed that the 2009 order had not been followed completely but we believe this new order gives TVA a well-defined path to ensuring the existence of a safety-conscious work environment at all its nuclear sites.”

NRC investigations never turned up any specific instances of employee retaliation at Watts Bar. But, after the Commission’s 2009 order, several reports by TVA’s Inspector General and other independent auditors turned up ongoing instances of mistrust, intimidation and other “significant weaknesses” in Watts Bar’s safety culture.

“We certainly look at every report that the Inspector General comes out with and apply that against our own material, Hopson said, adding the NRC is the sole regulator for civilian nuclear plants like TVA.

In April 2016, the NRC issued a “Chilled Work Environment” letter to TVA after a series of allegations reported to the NRC and to TVA’s Employee Concerns Program indicated employees were afraid to raise safety concerns. That year, Watts Bar led the nation in allegations submitted to the NRC.

Hopson said that letter was not directly related to the 2009 confirmatory order, though they covered the same safety issues. 

“Through the NRC’s investigation at Watts Bar and in fact through the investigation that led to this new confirmatory order, there have been no instances of actual retaliatory actions documented in any of those reviews,” he said, contending that the perception of a chilled work environment was just as dangerous.

“We do not want anyone to feel like if they raise a valid safety concern that TVA and its leadership will turn a deaf ear to them or even worse, retaliate,” he said. “That is not what we’re about and it’s certainly not what we’re doing in the past or going forward.”

The new order requires TVA to continue participating in independent audits and assessments on safety culture progress.

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