The Nuclear Regulatory Commission values discussion among staff members who suggest alternative approaches or hold differing professional views. Since 1976 it has offered alternative methods of raising concerns including a documented Open Door Policy and a formal Differing Professional Opinions (DPO) Program. In 2006 the Executive Director for Operations issued a draft directive establishing an additional option called the Non-Concurrence Process (NCP).
All documents that the NRC creates must pass through a review by affected offices and selected individuals. There are opportunities available for these reviewers to make comments and suggest corrections. The document preparer works with reviewers to address concerns, but occasionally situations arise where no agreement is possible. The reviewer then has the option to formally document a “Non-Concurrence.” In the period between implementation and the end of 2012, the process was used 80 times, an average of 11 times per year with the maximum number of 19 cases in 2011. Compared to the volume of documents produced by the NRC each year, the NCP is infrequently used.
In an agency-wide Safety Culture and Climate Survey conducted in the fall of 2012, there were two questions relating to the NCP out of 132 questions. Out the the roughly 4,000 employees at the NRC, 2,981 responded to the survey. 88% of them indicated that they were aware that the NCP was one of the methods available for raising a concern. That was up from 41% in 2006, when the program was first introduced, and up from 78% from the safety culture survey conducted in 2009. 49% thought that the NCP was effective, up from 44% in 2009. 37% indicated that they had no opinion about the NCP, while just 14% indicated they did not think that the program was effective.
Survey Targeted to People Who Have Used Non-Concurrence Process
The NRC is an agency that seeks continuous improvement. In March 2013 it contracted an additional targeted survey aimed at people who had used the NCP, either as submitters or participants (people who responded to a non-concurrence.) Because of the low number of NCP cases, this targeted survey was sent to a small fraction of the 4,000 employees. There were 39 surveys issued to submitters and 24 were returned. 62 participants received surveys and just 17 people returned those surveys. The survey population included anyone who had used the NCP during 2007-2012.
The low population size and limited return rate raise substantial questions about the survey validity. The most likely people to take the time to fill out a survey like this are those who have strong feelings.
Despite its statistical limitations, the NRC is using the targeted survey results as a useful indicator of the need to make improvements in the process and to address the noted concerns about a perceived lack of management support. (See pages 10-20 of U. S. NRC Office of Enforcement 2014 Non-Concurrence Process Assessment (ADAMS accession # ML14056A294) for a detailed look at the actions that the NRC is planning to implement or has already implemented.)
Never one to overlook an opportunity to discredit nuclear energy and its regulatory body, Senator ED Markey has seized on the worst-sounding results out of the numerous questions asked of the small population of people surveyed. He did not choose to mention that 64% of the submitters indicated that they had received verbal praise from co-workers after submitting their NCP or that 77% reported that they believed that their views were heard by management or that 73% agreed that others in the process understood their reasons for non-concurrence.
Instead, during the June 5, 2014 interrogation of the five Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners hosted by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Ed Markey made damning accusations against the NRC and its safety culture.
Here is Markey’s quote from the hearing.
The NRC claims to foster a safety conscious work environment where personnel feel free to raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation, intimidation, harassment or discrimination.
In the past year, my office has heard from an increasing number of whistleblowers from many different offices at NRC. These people are all serious, dedicated individuals who are calling my staff because they feel that they are not being heard by their own managers and colleagues. They feel that when they step forward to report safety, security or other problems they are systematically retaliated against. I have raised this concern many times with you.
I am holding a report written by the NRC but not yet publicly released that actually surveyed those who have attempted to use NRC’s formal processes for resolving policy disagreements. A staggering 75% of those who used them reported that they had received a poor performance appraisal after they raised their whistleblower concerns.
Almost two thirds of them said they were excluded from work activities by their management, 25% were passed over for promotion, 25% were even verbally abused by their colleagues and their supervisors. Those results are shameful and I ask that portions of this report be entered into the record and request your formal written response and what you plan to do to fix these problems.
Though he stated that his concerns have arisen over the past year, it is most likely that he meant to refer to communications received during the past two years. A search using “Markey NRC whistleblower retaliation” turned up a number of news stories starting in May 2012 with additional stories in June and October of that year.
As mentioned above, the targeted survey was conducted in March 2013 and surveyed people who have submitted a non-concurrence sometime during the period between 2007 and 2012; it provides no evidence of trends during the past year.
The “staggering 75%” of people who received a poor performance appraisal represents just 18 people out of an agency with 4,000 employees. There was little follow through by the surveyors to determine if that claim was, in fact true. It would not be difficult to review the performance appraisals of the people who made the claim to see if they got any worse. It is possible that at least some of the people were already receiving poor performance appraisals before they submitted a non-concurrence.
I’ve personally experienced the frustration that managers and leaders experience when they discover an area for improvement using their routine methods of finding problems, take action to address those problems and then have overseers who are apparently trying to score political points or advance a particular agenda continue to claim a trend of ever worsening performance without waiting for the results of new evaluations after the improvement actions have taken place.
My advice to people who are concerned is to take a few deep breaths, let the NRC work on its internal processes, and wait for the results of the next survey. I know that will be difficult advice for politicians to take.
Washington Post (June 6, 2014) Nuclear agency chief pledges freedom to disagree.
Government Executive (June 6, 2014) Staffers at Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report Backlash After Dissent
NRC Blog (June 4, 2014) Improving NRC’s Internal Processes