NRC’s Reprisal Study Reveals Safety Agency Has a Chilled Work Environment

July 2, 2018 | 10:18 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

In January 2018, the NRC circulated within the agency a 100-page report  titled “Study of Reprisal and Chilling Effect for Raising Mission-Related Concerns and Differing Views at the NRC.” The report was authored by Renee Pedersen, who had managed the NRC’s Differing Professional Opinion (DPO) and non-concurrence programs for many years before retiring from the agency at the end of that month. These programs enable NRC staffers to register differing views with agency positions or plans and to have those views formally evaluated.

This is an issue I follow closely. I issued a report and blog post last year titled “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Safety Culture: Do As I Say, Not As I Do” examining evidence that prompted the NRC to intervene about safety culture problems at U.S. nuclear power plants and comparable evidence strongly suggesting that the agency had the same, if not worse, signs of trouble. These products updated a theme discussed in a November 2014 blog post.

After hearing about the reprisal study and its contents from several NRC staffers, I submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for it on February 1, 2018.

On June 27, the NRC emailed me the reprisals study. Well, they emailed me a redacted version of the reprisals study. Certain information was blocked out in the released report on alleged grounds that its disclosure would compromise the anonymity of NRC staffers. The study compiled results from several surveys of the NRC’s work force—those conducted every three years by the NRC’s Office of the Inspector General, those conducted annually by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys, and those conducted by the NRC’s Office of Enforcement. The first two types of surveys involved the entire NRC work force and typically had nearly 80 percent response rates; the third type of surveys went out to a much smaller subset of the NRC’s work force—those individuals who had filed DPOs and non-concurrences.

Figure 1 is the heavily-redacted Page 58 from the Reprisals Study. It showed (or would have shown but for the redactions) the responses to the 2013 and 2016 surveys of NRC staff who had initiated DPOs.

Fig. 1 (Source: NRC record obtained by UCS via FOIA)

Typically, it’s hard to contest the redaction of information for any purported reason without seeing the information to see whether it indeed justifies withholding.

But it’s easy to contest the redaction when you’re able to see the information being withheld. Figure 2 is the entirely unredacted Page 58 from the Reprisals Study.

Fig. 2 (Source: Confidential, anonymous UCS source(s))

So, no NRC staffer is identified by the unredacted information. The unredacted information does strongly suggest that nine individuals responded to the 2013 survey questions (i.e., 1 out of 9 equals 11%, 2 out of 9 equals 22%). The unredacted information does not suggest how many individuals responded to the 2016 survey (unless it was only one) since there were 100% or 0% response rates for every question. Okay, another solid clue resides in NRC’s online electronic library, ADAMS. NRC staff initiating DPOs can elect to make the final DPO package publicly available in ADAMS. The NRC numbers DPOs sequentially: the first one is DPO-yyyy-001, the fifth one is DPO-yyyy-005 and so on. It doesn’t take a concerned scientist long to figure out from ADAMS about how many DPOs are filed each year and thus how many DPO initiators are being surveyed (clue—fewer than a dozen each year.)

Page 58 is part of Appendix D to the Reprisals Study. The first sentence of Appendix D stated: “OE [Office of Enforcement] conducted two anonymous voluntary surveys to employees who submitted non-concurrences and DPOs.” So, the survey results were submitted voluntarily and provided anonymously (i.e., Response A could not be linked to any specific member of the DPO and non-concurrence author universe.)

So, case closed on whether or not disclosure of anonymous responses submitted voluntarily could reveal personal privacy information or compromise any one’s anonymity. UCS has formally appealed this bogus rationale by the NRC and requested that the illegally redacted information be released publicly.

What Does the Reprisal Study Reveal?

The unredacted and “outed” redacted portions of the Reprisals Study make it crystal clear that the NRC has a chilled work environment. Several safety culture terms are defined beginning on page 7 of the Reprisals Study. Two of those definitions are quoted verbatim, including the boldfacing in the original text, from the study:

Chilling Effect is a condition that occurs when an event, interaction, inaction, decision, or policy change results in a perception that the raising of a mission-related concern or differing view to management is being suppressed, is discouraged, or will result in reprisal

Chilled Work Environment is a condition where the chilling effect is not isolated (e.g., multiple individuals, functional groups, shift crews, or levels of workers within the organization are affected

Note that a “chilling effect” is defined not as the actual, irrefutable, uncontestable, unmistakable reality that raising a differing review will result in reprisal, but merely the perception of such an adverse outcome. But page 6 of the Reprisals Study stated that “reprisal is a case in which perception is as important as reality” [boldface in original text.]

And note that a “chilled work environment” exists with the perception that voicing differing views will result in reprisal is not isolated to a single worker.

Look at Figure 2 again. The chart at its top reveals that 100 percent of the responses in 2016 felt experiencing a negative consequence for having filed a DPO. The chart at its bottom shows that respondents felt they experienced reprisals of various forms.

Figure 2 constitutes prima facie evidence of a chilling effect within the NRC—at least one worker felt that filing a DPO had negative consequences. I have ample reason to believe that Figure 2 also constitutes prima facie evidence of a chilled work environment within the NRC because more than one worker reported this feeling. I have had private communications with more than one DPO filer who told me they responded to the survey indicating they experienced negative consequences. But Figure 2 alone does not prove a chilled work environment, since the 2016 data could reflect 100% responses from a sole individual.

Other portions of the study provide compelling evidence that a chilled work environment exists at the NRC. The study shows that in the 2015 survey:

  • Only 64% of employees said they believed the NRC “has established a climate where truth can be taken up the chain of command without fear of reprisal”
  • Only 68% of employees said they “can raise any concern without fear of retaliation”
  • Only 77% said “it is safe to speak up in the NRC”
  • 20% of the employees indicated “they had heard of someone with the last year who experienced a negative reaction for having raised a mission-related differing view”

While it is commendable that the surveys suggest that the NRC’s workplace is thawing over time, global warming seems to be significantly outpacing the agency’s workplace warming. The 2015 numbers are totally unacceptable. The NRC has come down hard and heavy when nuclear plant sites have smaller segments of their work forces fearful of voicing safety concerns. (See our 2017 report for example after example of the NRC intervening for much smaller pockets of fear and reluctance.)

Ms. Pedersen also consulted with the NRC’s Office of the Inspector General, Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, Office of General Counsel and Office of Small Business and Civil Rights as well as the National Treasury Employees Union that represents many NRC workers and found “it appears that five reports of reprisal may have occurred in the last three years.” The study quoted from the April 24, 2017, NTEU newsletter: “We continue to hear about employees being afraid to raise issues for fear of retaliation as well as from employees who feel they have been retaliated against for raising concerns, including safety concerns.”

UCS Perspective

By its own definition, the NRC considers a chilling effect to exist when there’s the perception that raising a differing view can result in reprisal. By its own data, that perception exists within the NRC’s work force.

By its own definition, the NRC considers a chilled work environment to exist when a chilling effect involves multiple workers. By its own data, a chilled work environment exists within the NRC.

By its own words and actions, the NRC has an intolerance for chilled work environments at nuclear power plants.

By its own inactions, the NRC has a tolerance for their own workers being chilled.

Americans deserve better from this federal agency. Their safety is in the hands of NRC’s inspectors, reviewers, managers, and staffers and those workers must feel free to raise those hands if they have safety concerns.

Equally important, NRC workers deserve better from their agency. These are talented and dedicated professionals who voice concerns because it is the right thing to do. When they do the right thing, the NRC simply must stop doing the wrong thing in response.

The good news is that the NRC knows how to remedy chilled work environments. They have been requiring those remedies be taken at nuclear plant site after nuclear plant site.

The bad news is that the NRC seems unwilling or unable to thaw out its own chilled work environment.

Final point (for now): I joined UCS in the fall of 1996. I suspected that I would hear from nuclear plant workers about safety concerns they had raised but which had not been satisfactorily resolved or which they feared raising. And my suspicions have been proven valid. But what I neither suspected nor imagined was that I would hear from NRC workers for the same reasons. But each and every year that I’ve worked for UCS, except for one, I have received more contacts from NRC workers than from all nuclear plant work forces combined. Evidently, the NRC has the largest nuclear refrigerator in the country.

Rather than “chill out,” the NRC needs to “thaw out.” Too much chillin’ going on.