- A January report assessing aspects of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) safety culture found employees at the agency fear reprisals and negative consequences for raising concerns or offering differing opinions, according to a review by the Union of Concerned Citizens (UCS).
- UCS requested the report under the Freedom of Information Act and received a copy with redactions that included employee survey results. A leaked, unredacted copy shows those employees said they were passed over for promotions as a result of participating in the agency's programs to share concerns or differing opinions.
- This is not the first sign of trouble at the agency. In December of last year, a report by the Better Government Association warned that the agency downplayed safety concerns brought by employees and had created an environment where employees did not feel comfortable raising concerns.
As a heat wave bakes much of the United States, one might think a "chilled work environment" a good thing. It's not when it regards a work culture where employees perceive their concerns about mission critical issues will result in negative consequences. It's worse that this issue exists at the agency charged with overseeing the nation's nuclear power plants, according to UCS.
The agency's review, "Study of Reprisal and Chilling Effect for Raising Mission-Related Concerns and Differing Views at the NRC" was completed by Renee Pedersen, a former manager of the agency's Differing Professional Opinion (DPO) and non-concurrence programs.
The programs aim to "promote early discussion and consideration of differing views or alternative approaches from currently held views or practices," according to outlines of their policies. But according to Dave Lochbaum, director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project, an unredacted version reveals concerning information.
The study published responses to the 2013 and 2016 surveys of agency employees who utilized the DPO program. All of the responses from the 2016 survey showed the employees felt they were excluded from work activities and passed over for advancement.
An NRC spokesman said in an email to Utility Dive that the agency "strongly believes maintaining an open collaborative work environment, in which all employees and contractors are encouraged to speak up and share concerns and differing views without fear of negative consequences, is critical to our success."
The study was developed as part of broader agency efforts "to advance a climate of trust within the staff," the agency said, and acknowledged that it "concluded there were opportunities to improve the environment for raising issues at the NRC."
As to why the initial version of the study released to Lochbaum was redacted, the NRC spokesman told Utility Dive that limited statistical information was redacted "to protect the personal privacy of respondents" because some of the questions were "asked of a small group of staffers under expectation of confidentiality."
The NRC last month issued memo welcoming the report and directing staff to implement more than a half dozen recommendations identified by the working group. Among them were strengthening the positive environment for raising concerns, promoting a culture of fairness and establishing clear expectations and accountability.
The group also recommended development of a neutral fact-finding process as a process to address allegations of retaliation.
NRC Executive Director for Operations Victor McCree, in a June 19 memo, requested the working group "meet with me to align on the strategy for developing this process, and obtain EDO approval prior to implementation of the process."
BGA's report last year raised similar concerns; the watchdog group said dozens of interviews and thousands of document pages showed the NRC downplays or ignores safety concerns and gives too much leeway to plant operators.
While development of new nuclear generation has ground to a halt, existing reactors remain a significant part of the United States' energy strategy. However, those reactors are aging. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average age of nuclear reactors in the United States is about 36 years-old. Reactors are licensed for an initial 40 years, followed by a possible 20-year extension which can be requested.