No. 6: TVA Fired an Entire Nuclear Oversight Department

The Employee Concern Program is being “restructured,” but outgoing employees say they were fired for doing their jobs

Three weeks ago, the senior administrators at the Tennessee Valley Authority quietly fired the four remaining employees of its nuclear power Employee Concern Program (ECP). The move came two days after a fifth employee retired under pressure, and while one of the four was in her first month of maternity leave.

The next day, May 14, an internal memo was sent to employees in the nuclear division.

“In response to employee feedback that the ECP program is not an effective alternative avenue for raising concerns, ECP will be changed to a different, more focused model for addressing employee concerns. The changes are based on benchmarking with other utilities that have a high performing ECP program. In the new model, ECP staff members will remain independent from management in its reporting structure, and will continue to respect and preserve employee anonymity as requested,” the memo states.

But according to a June 4 letter sent to Margaret Doane, the executive director for operations at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the firings and reorganization of the oversight office happened because the staff was actually providing oversight.

“While TVA's words pay lip-service to the ‘vital role’ played by the ECP, if TVA really understood the necessity and significance of the ECP program in its own strong safety culture, it would not have taken this outrageous action,” writes Billie Pirner Garde, a D.C. attorney currently representing four of ECP staff members.

Until now, TVA’s Employee Concern Program employed a manager at each of its three nuclear sites: Sequoyah in Hamilton County, Watts Bar in Rhea County, and Brown’s Ferry in north Alabama. Another manager worked in the nuclear corporate division in downtown Chattanooga, and a fifth employee, also in Chattanooga, oversaw the entire department. The employees have worked for TVA from seven to 34 years, although not in ECP their entire careers.

Unlike TVA’s general human resources department, which would handle complaints like sexual harassment or discrimination, ECP staff focused on complaints regarding quality control and nuclear and radiological safety issues. 

“It is no secret to the workforce that the TVA ECP program has been at the forefront of identifying the numerous departments throughout the corporation, across the sites, that have ‘chilled work environments,’ responding to employee concerns about retaliation for raising concerns, and disclosing significant management and safety culture weaknesses to TVA and the TVA Inspector General’s office,” Garde states in her letter. “The ECP's actions have often been the only honest insight into the dysfunctional organization and TVA's repeated, persistent inability to develop a strong safety culture and eliminate HIRD [Harassment Intimidation Retaliation Discrimination] from its workplaces. … To be blunt, if a TVA employee identifies a serious safety concern today, who are they going to call — ghostbusters?”

According to one TVA employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, administration in the nuclear department has repeatedly pushed back when ECP staff have issued corrective letters or cited a “chilled work environment” in specific departments, meaning employees fear retaliation for speaking up about safety concerns.

“We’ve seen complaints from employees saying they have been told, ‘Don’t question this,’ when they ask about a safety concern, or that they are told, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable that it’s safe, we’ll get the next shift to do it,’ ” the employee says, with eerie echoes of what hundreds of now-sick employees were told while cleaning up the massive 2008 coal ash spill at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant. “It’s the same type of behaviors [as Kingston] but with worse ramifications because of the longer half-life of radioactive materials.”

The Watts Bar plant was cited by the NRC with a “chilling effect” letter in 2016. A January 2019 inspection found improvements but not enough for the agency to remove its increased oversight. However, according to the employee, management at Watts has been pressuring staff to not open case files when complaints are received, and the internal feeling among employees is that not much has improved.

A second internal TVA memo sent to nuclear staff May 30 states, “Employees have told us — through surveys, focus groups and discussions — that change is necessary in order to build the desired confidence that ECP is a viable alternative avenue for raising nuclear safety concerns.” 

But Garde disputes this, noting, “the actual information received by the ECP staff who conducted the pulsing surveys, is that 90 percent of employees stated they have confidence in the ECP as it now exists. … 

“Choosing the right words for regulatory communications does not substitute for the truth about the status of employee confidence in the program. TVA’s current senior management, in particular in the nuclear regulatory affairs and licensing department, is simply incapable of accepting truthful feedback about its work environment. Its focus, for years, has been to remove those individuals who try to tell management that it is their behaviors and conduct that is at the core of the problem,” Garde writes.

When asked about the restructuring, TVA spokesperson Scott Gureck issued a statement with almost the same wording as the May 14 memo and added that it was inaccurate one employee had been pressured to resign the week prior to the restructuring. (While none of the fired employees have yet signed the severance agreement, which as currently written would include six months of pay, the retired employee would ineligible for that. The employees are also eligible to apply for current openings within TVA. )

In a brief phone call, Gureck said he did not have specific information about how the new ECP would work but assured it would remain independent.

However, a May 30 PowerPoint presented at a Sequoyah Leadership Forum by Greg Boerschig, TVA’s vice president of nuclear oversight, states, “The goal for success is not found in ECP enabling employees to use them as the preferred source of resolving concerns. Success is defined by employees understanding that their leadership is the one solving their issues and that their management is the primary path for getting their issues resolved. ECP is truly a secondary path.”

Garde finds this laughable.

“This statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of where the current TVA safety culture is. While a healthy safety culture does include employees trusting their management to resolve concerns, TVA is so far removed from having such a culture, that this decision is simply a strategic management move to eliminate employee concerns and any independent avenue to receive those concerns and investigate them,” Garde writes. “[This] assumes, correctly, that management has not taken ECP seriously in the past; but now assumes, incorrectly, that by replacing qualified ECP staff with line managers, management miraculously will act differently.”

Garde’s letter asks the NRC to halt the ECP changes and hold a public meeting on the plan. And NRC officials have already been interviewing the fired employees, who technically still remain on the job through the end of the month (except for the one who is taking FMLA).

In a phone call, Garde says it was simply an “outrageous action” for TVA to take.

“The law protects employees like these — employees who protect the rest of us. And the removal of the entire ECP staff sends an unmistakable message to the workforce that their concerns are not really welcome at TVA, and that employees should choose silence instead of having an independent avenue to raise their concerns,” Garde says.

The TVA employee concurs.

“Rather than fix the culture they fired the smallest group.”

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