Staffers at Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report Backlash after Dissent

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission testifies at an oversight hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power on May 7. From left to right, Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane and Commissioners Kristine Svinicki, George Apostolakis, William Magwood and William Ostendorff.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
June 5, 2014, 10:18 a.m.

Sev­enty-five per­cent of Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion em­ploy­ees who par­ti­cip­ated in an in­tern­al sur­vey said they re­ceived poor per­form­ance re­views after re­gis­ter­ing form­al ob­jec­tions to agency de­cisions, a re­port made pub­lic Wed­nes­day says.

For em­ploy­ees that ob­ject to policy, tech­nic­al or ad­min­is­trat­ive state­ments con­tained in agency doc­u­ments work­ing their way up the NRC man­age­ment chain for ap­prov­al, the agency has a form­al “non-con­cur­rence” pro­cess meant to en­sure that the con­cerns of those staffers are heard.

Ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey, which was con­duc­ted last year by the NRC Of­fice of En­force­ment, many of those sur­veyed about their own ex­per­i­ence sub­mit­ting form­al ob­jec­tions through the pro­gram be­lieved there had been neg­at­ive con­sequences to do­ing so.

In ad­di­tion to the three quar­ters of sur­vey par­ti­cipants who re­por­ted poor per­form­ance re­views after rais­ing ob­jec­tions, 63 per­cent felt they were ex­cluded from work activ­it­ies and 25 per­cent thought they were passed over for pro­mo­tions.

Mean­while, 25 per­cent said they were verbally ab­used by their su­per­visors or col­leagues after sub­mit­ting a form­al ob­jec­tion, and only 32 per­cent said their views were fully con­sidered be­fore a de­cision was made.

The en­force­ment of­fice re­port says the NRC in­spect­or gen­er­al’s of­fice was able to sub­stan­ti­ate sev­er­al of the claims of poor per­form­ance re­views after rais­ing ob­jec­tions. “Re­gard­less of wheth­er neg­at­ive con­sequences ac­tu­ally oc­curred, staff re­cog­nizes that the per­cep­tion of neg­at­ive con­sequences can have a chilling ef­fect on em­ploy­ees and can po­ten­tially in­hib­it them from rais­ing con­cerns,” the re­port adds.

Speak­ing at a con­gres­sion­al hear­ing Wed­nes­day, Sen­at­or Ed­ward Mar­key (D-Mass.) said he was con­cerned that safety and se­cur­ity is­sues raised by NRC em­ploy­ees are not be­ing ad­equately con­sidered as the agency grapples with how to re­vise its reg­u­la­tions fol­low­ing the on­set of the Fukushi­ma dis­aster in 2011.

“Es­pe­cially post-Fukushi­ma, it’s very im­port­ant that we get this cul­ture to change,” Mar­key said.

In ad­di­tion to the sur­vey res­ults, Mar­key said that, dur­ing the past year, his staff “has heard from an in­creas­ing num­ber of whis­tleblowers from many dif­fer­ent of­fices at NRC. “¦ They feel that when they step for­ward to re­port safety, se­cur­ity or oth­er prob­lems, they are sys­tem­at­ic­ally re­tali­ated against.”

The com­mis­sion made the 2014 re­port pub­lic Wed­nes­day even­ing after Mar­key cited it dur­ing the morn­ing hear­ing.

NRC spokes­man Dav­id McIntyre sug­ges­ted that not all form­al staff ob­jec­tions end badly. He noted that Joseph Giiter, chief of the agency’s risk ana­lys­is di­vi­sion, filed such an ob­jec­tion to a Janu­ary NRC staff pa­per re­gard­ing how the agency would handle re­quests from nuc­le­ar power plants look­ing to have their li­censes re­newed for a second time.

Giiter still holds his man­age­ment job after ob­ject­ing to the of­fi­cial staff po­s­i­tion that such aging re­act­ors should not have to con­duct new as­sess­ments of po­ten­tial risks as­so­ci­ated with their con­tin­ued op­er­a­tion, McIntyre said.

The com­mis­sion faced fierce ques­tion­ing on a num­ber of safety and se­cur­ity is­sues Wed­nes­day, in­clud­ing on wheth­er it would stop ex­empt­ing shuttered nuc­le­ar power plants from cer­tain emer­gency-plan­ning and se­cur­ity reg­u­la­tions.

In a let­ter to com­mis­sion Chair­wo­man Al­lis­on Mac­far­lane last month, Sen­at­or Bar­bara Box­er (D-Cal­if.), Mar­key and three oth­er sen­at­ors noted that re­tired U.S. atom­ic power plants still have sig­ni­fic­ant amounts of nuc­le­ar waste at their sites, and likely will for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

The sen­at­ors raised con­cerns that the com­mis­sion has already ex­emp­ted 10 such plants from cer­tain emer­gency rules and ques­tioned wheth­er it was wise to do so in light of the Fukushi­ma dis­aster and the threat of ter­ror­ism. They noted that the com­mis­sion is ex­pec­ted in the near fu­ture to con­sider ap­plic­a­tions for sim­il­ar ex­emp­tions from four ad­di­tion­al sites.

One of those sites is the San Ono­fre nuc­le­ar power plant near San Diego, which shut down last year amid con­cerns that it had been op­er­at­ing with de­fect­ive parts. Dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing, Box­er read from the fa­cil­ity’s ex­emp­tion re­quest, which she said is seek­ing to “dis­con­tin­ue off-site emer­gency plan­ning activ­it­ies” for the sur­round­ing com­munity and “re­duce the scope of onsite emer­gency plan­ning” at the site it­self.

Ac­cord­ing to Box­er, part of the re­quest is to dis­con­tin­ue evac­u­ation plan­ning for the area. “They’re ba­sic­ally ask­ing to be let off the hook,” she said.

Box­er’s staff held up an aer­i­al photo that showed a re­cent wild­fire com­ing with­in a half-mile of the San Ono­fre site, and the sen­at­or raised con­cerns that fu­ture blazes could have cata­stroph­ic con­sequences if they reached the fa­cil­ity.

Read­ing from a 2003 pa­per co-au­thored by Mac­far­lane and two act­iv­ists, Box­er said land con­tam­in­a­tion caused by a fire in a plant’s spent fuel pool “could be sig­ni­fic­antly worse than Chernobyl.”

Sen­at­or Dav­id Vit­ter (R-La.) sought to put the re­quest in a dif­fer­ent light, say­ing that an op­er­a­tion­al power plant is a “dif­fer­ent an­im­al” than one that has shut down.

For her part, Mac­far­lane said the com­mis­sion would not ex­empt the de­funct plant from all emer­gency plan­ning re­quire­ments. But she and the oth­er four pres­id­en­tially ap­poin­ted com­mis­sion­ers de­clined to go any fur­ther, say­ing NRC staff was still study­ing the re­quest.

Dur­ing the hear­ing, Box­er also hammered the com­mis­sion­ers over oth­er re­cent safety and se­cur­ity de­cisions. Those in­cluded one in which they had elec­ted not to re­quire plant op­er­at­ors to speed up the trans­fer of nuc­le­ar waste from the spent-fuel pools and in­to dry-cask stor­age con­tain­ers, which some ex­perts ar­gue are more se­cure and less vul­ner­able to fire. The com­mis­sion voted 4-1 on the is­sue, with Mac­Far­lane, a Demo­crat, cast­ing the lone op­pos­i­tion vote.

The sen­at­or also re­leased a leg­al ana­lys­is that she said showed the com­mis­sion was im­prop­erly with­hold­ing doc­u­ments per­tain­ing to the San Ono­fre plant. The ana­lys­is, writ­ten by a leg­al ex­pert form­ally em­ployed by the Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice, seeks to re­but leg­al ar­gu­ments made by the agency.

Mac­Far­lane “demon­strates a pro­found mis­un­der­stand­ing of “¦ Con­gress’s in­vest­ig­at­ory power in the “¦ mat­ter; mis­states the au­thor­ity of three cited cases deal­ing with the law on con­gres­sion­al in­ter­ces­sion in agency de­cision­mak­ing; ig­nores the over­whelm­ing con­trary case law “¦ that is ap­plic­able in this situ­ation; and shows a lack of aware­ness of over 90 years of con­gres­sion­al in­vest­ig­a­tions in which agen­cies have been con­sist­ently ob­liged to provide doc­u­ments and testi­mony,” the re­port by Mor­ton Rosen­berg said.

The ana­lys­is also ar­gues that Box­er’s En­vir­on­ment & Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee has au­thor­ity to ob­tain the doc­u­ments through “com­puls­ory pro­cess.”

Ac­cord­ing to Box­er, the pan­el will get the ma­ter­i­al “one way or an­oth­er.”

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