Officials from Wolf Creek Generating Station, a 1,200-MW nuclear plant located northeast of Burlington, Kan., met with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Jan. 22 to review actions the company has taken in response to the NRC’s issuance of a chilling effects letter on Aug. 19, 2013.

The NRC defines a “chilled work environment” as one in which workers are hesitant to raise safety concerns for fear of retaliation. The letter was issued, in part, because the NRC had seen an increase in the number of allegations raised at Wolf Creek since 2010, including 19 concerns related to the safety conscious work environment, in addition to alleged harassment and intimidation or discrimination. Although the NRC acknowledged that many of the allegations have not been substantiated, it believes the types of concerns raised provide important information about problem reporting and resolution effectiveness. An incident involving a contractor employee raised additional red flags for the NRC.

In that incident, Enercon Services Inc., a contractor employed by Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp. (WCNOC), terminated an employee who had been performing fence erection around the essential service water screen house at Wolf Creek on Jan. 30, 2012. The terminated employee filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) alleging that he was terminated because he had raised safety concerns while performing his duties. OSHA conducted an investigation of the incident and concluded, in a letter dated May 15, 2013, that Enercon had discriminated against this former employee for raising nuclear safety issues. Enercon has appealed the decision, which is pending at this time.

The NRC, for its own part, conducted inspections and interviews at the site to assess the working environment. An NRC inspection report, issued on July 22, 2013, noted clear signs of improvement overall, but found specific issues within the Quality Department. The most notable concern was the perception of Quality Assurance (QA) Group members that they were not free to raise safety concerns through the corrective actions program or their management.

During the meeting yesterday, WCNOC leadership acknowledged that they hadn’t gotten the right balance within their organization. Steve Koenig, manager of strategic initiatives at Wolf Creek said, “It has been very important to us to continue to strive for excellence. We are continually driving the organization to perform at a higher level. In the process of doing that, you also have to balance the impact of raising those standards in the organization. Specifically in the case of QA, we didn’t get that balance. It wasn’t where we wanted it to be.”

The company is in the process of making significant changes in the leadership team including at the top of the organization. On Jan. 17, WCNOC announced the appointment of Adam Heflin as its new chief executive officer and chief nuclear officer, replacing Matt Sunseri who announced his retirement last year. Heflin had been with Ameren Missouri and was credited with leading a focused initiative that saw major operational, safety, and cultural improvements at the Callaway Energy Center.

“During his tenure as chief nuclear officer for Ameren Missouri, Adam helped shape best practices for single plant nuclear operations in America.  His experience leading the Callaway Energy Center, a plant nearly identical in design to our facility, makes him ideally suited to maintain and improve performance at Wolf Creek,” said Mark Ruelle, chairman of the board of WCNOC and president and chief executive officer of Westar Energy, one of Wolf Creek’s owner companies.

The company’s actions seem to be making a difference. It was reported that during recent follow-up interviews conducted with the QA Group, members recognized that barriers have been removed and acknowledged improvement within the organization.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)