Nuclear Employee Safety Concerns:

Allegation System Offers Better Protection, but Important Issues Remain

HEHS-97-51: Published: Mar 31, 1997. Publicly Released: Apr 9, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) and Department of Labor's implementation of legislation pertaining to the protection of nuclear power industry workers who raise health and safety issues, focusing on: (1) how federal laws and regulations protect nuclear power industry employees from discrimination for raising health and safety concerns; (2) the implementation status of recommendations made in recent NRC and Labor internal reviews and audits of the system for protecting workers; and (3) the resulting changes to the system.

GAO noted that: (1) NRC has overall responsibility for ensuring that the nuclear plants it licenses are operated safely, and the Department of Labor also plays a role in the system that protects industry employees against discrimination for raising health and safety concerns; (2) the Atomic Energy Act, as amended, gives NRC responsibility for taking action against the employers it licenses when they are found to have discriminated against individual employees; (3) NRC can investigate when a harassment and intimidation allegation is filed with NRC or when it receives a copy of a discrimination complaint filed with Labor; (4) NRC's Office of Enforcement may use the results of the NRC investigation or a decision from Labor to support enforcement action; (5) in addition, the Energy Reorganization Act, as amended, authorizes the Secretary of Labor to order employers to make restitution to the victims of such discrimination; (6) restitution can include such actions as reinstatement to a former position, reimbursement of all expenses related to the complaint, and removal from personnel files of any adverse references to complaint activities; (7) concerns raised by employees about a lack of protection under the existing process led to studies begun by NRC and Labor in 1992; (8) these concerns included the inordinate amount of time it took Labor to act on some discrimination complaints and NRC's lack of involvement in cases during Labor's decision process; (9) in response to recommendations in reports from these groups, both NRC and Labor have taken actions intended to improve the system for protecting employees; (10) for example, NRC has established a senior position to centrally coordinate and oversee all phases of allegation management, and it has taken other actions to improve overall management of the system, such as establishing procedures to improve communication and feedback among employees, NRC, and licensees; (11) it has also increased its involvement in allegation cases through several actions, including investigating a greater number of allegations; (12) while NRC and Labor have been responsive to these recommendations, other recommendations, which could be implemented through administrative procedural changes and would further improve the system, still need to be addressed; (13) in addition, NRC and Labor have yet to complete action on recommendations requiring statutory and regulatory changes; and (14) these include recommendations to reduce the financial burden on workers with cases pending and to increase the dollar amount of civil penalties.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Labor agreed with the intent of this regulation but reported that it is unable to revise the timeliness standards unless Congress revises the statutory 90-day limit for discrimination complaint resolution. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) drafted such legislation in March 2000 to extend the statutory timeframe, and, jointly with Labor, forwarded the proposed legislation to Congress. Congress did not act on the proposed legislation. Neither NRC or Labor plans to either redraft the legislation or work with Congress to address the previously forwarded legislation, noting other priorities on the part of the agencies as well as Congress.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of Labor's allegations processing, the Secretary of Labor should establish and meet realistic timeliness standards for all three steps in its process for investigating discrimination complaints by employees in the nuclear power industry.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, NRC electronically linked its Office of Investigations to its Allegation Management System (AMS)in late 1998. However, plans for linking NRC's Office of Enforcement with AMS, originally scheduled for completion in 1999, has been delayed indefinitely. NRC has no plans for additional action to respond to this recommendation, believing that existing linkages are sufficient.

    Recommendation: To improve NRC's ability to monitor the allegation process, the Chairman, NRC, should complete implementation of the NRC review team's recommendation to establish and operate the revised Allegation Management System in all organizational components within NRC.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Labor-related information is put into the AMS as a result of Labor notifying NRC of its cases. In September 1998, the Chairman, NRC, and the Secretary of Labor signed a memorandum of understanding which states that DOL will promptly notify NRC of any complaint filed with DOL alleging discrimination, provide a quarterly listing of complaints received, and keep NRC informed on the status of judicial proceedings.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, and the Secretary of Labor should coordinate efforts to ensure that NRC's Allegation Management System includes information on the status of cases at Labor.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Actions have been taken on two aspects of this recommendation. NRC is tracking settlements, and in April 1999, the Commission decided to enclose feedback forms in all allegation closure letters for a one-year trial period. However with respect to the recommendation that NRC use a systematic method to obtain safety environment information from employees, the Commission, after reviewing comments on a draft proposal, determined that new procedures to obtain such information at nuclear power plants were not necessary. The Commission decided to continue its current policy, with the addition of additional guidance and training to inspectors.

    Recommendation: To improve NRC's knowledge of the work environment at nuclear power plants, the Chairman, NRC, should ensure the implementation of recommendations to provide information on the extent to which the environment in nuclear plants is favorable for employees to report health or safety hazards without fear of discrimination. This would include recommendations on tracking and monitoring allegation cases and settlements, routinely providing feedback forms in allegation case close-out correspondence, systematically following up on chilling effect letters, and using a survey or other systematic method of obtaining information from employees.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission


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