- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Tuesday announced it had fined Tennessee Valley Authority $606,942 for "deliberate misconduct" that led to "adverse conditions" for two former employees who complained about a "chilled work environment" that made workers less likely to raise safety concerns at the company.
- "TVA's former vice president of regulatory affairs and former director of corporate nuclear licensing violated the NRC's employee protection rule and engaged in deliberate misconduct," the commission wrote in a statement announcing the fine. The utility said it "previously investigated these events, which occurred several years ago, and did not reach the same conclusion as the NRC," TVA spokesperson Jim Hopson said in an email. "We are continuing to evaluate the NRC's notice and are evaluating our next steps."
The Union of Concerned Scientists noted that it was the largest penalty imposed on TVA by the NRC. "A penalty to a single site on the order of the TVA penalty is highly unusual," Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety for UCS said in an email. "We are concerned that continued corporate culture problems at TVA may be inhibiting the ability of workers to raise safety issues," Lyman said.
A civil penalty of more than $600,000 is unusual, according to Lyman, considering the total amount of proposed civil penalties for all violations at NRC licensed facilities averaged just over $200,000 a year for calendar years 2014-2018.
The NRC also is prohibiting TVA's former vice president of regulatory affairs, Joseph Shea, from any involvement in NRC-licensed activities for five years, according to the NRC's statement, alleging that Shea and the former director of corporate nuclear licensing (CNL) violated the NRC's employee protection rule. The commission also issued a notice of violation to the latter but did not issue any penalty or sanction because the former director was not the decision maker in the employee actions.
The commission had no comment beyond its Aug. 25 statement and the publicly released cover letters and notices of violation.
The NRC's Office of Investigations stated in its notice of violation that after two former employees reported concerns, the director of CNL created a "chilled working environment," and the director filed harassment complaints against each, initiating investigations. One employee was placed on administrative leave and the other was placed on administrative leave and later terminated for alleged insubordination.
The NRC staff continues to review and inspect work environment issues and TVA's corrective actions at the utility's corporate office and its three nuclear power plants (Browns Ferry, Sequoyah and Watts Bar), according to the commission's statement.
"The NRC reported that there were five open investigations stemming from discrimination allegations against the TVA corporate headquarters, which have potential implications for all TVA's nuclear plant sites," according to UCS's Lyman.
"NRC also reported that over twenty allegations had been filed at Watts Bar and just under twenty at Browns Ferry in 2019, many of which pertaining to a chilled work environment and discrimination," Lyman said.
That a substantial number of allegations continued to be submitted at TVA nuclear plants suggested ongoing problems, Lyman said.
"The ability of nuclear facility workers to raise safety and security concerns without fear of retaliation is a critical aspect of nuclear plant operations," Lyman continued. "Hopefully, this enforcement action against TVA is an indication that the NRC takes these violations seriously and will serve as a deterrent against discriminatory behavior by management across the nuclear fleet."
"We take this issue very seriously and respect the NRC's decision," TVA's Hopson said. "We remain committed to a healthy and sustainable Nuclear Safety Culture and Safety Conscious Work Environment. We work on it every day and in recent years have taken multiple actions to strengthen our Nuclear Safety Culture."
TVA and the two individuals cited have 30 days to respond to the NRC's enforcement actions.