The NRC recently issued its Allegation Program Annual Trends Report, analyzing regional, national, and site-specific allegation trends for calendar year 2021. The report’s top-line numbers show that allegations increased approximately 40% from 2020. The broad-based increase spanned reactor and materials licensees, as well as their vendors.
Although this increase reverses a five-year downward trend in allegations, it is important to keep in mind that allegations have been at a historic low in recent history. One factor suspected of contributing to this historic low is the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the NRC could not specifically verify this, it attributed increased remote work during the pandemic to fewer conflicts and thus fewer allegations. As more employees returned onsite in 2021, the NRC believes it reasonable to assume that this led to more allegations.
Even so, the report shows that the causes and sources of the increased allegations varied and were not in all cases related to the pandemic. Notably, multiple allegations involving the sale of radioactive materials on the internet were received after one concerned individual posted their positive experience with the NRC’s allegation program via social media.
The NRC also reported that one reactor site accounted for nearly 25% of reactor allegations. However, review of the allegations and onsite inspections showed that the safety-conscious work environment at the site remained healthy, and that workers were not hesitant to raise concerns through many available reporting avenues.
For reactor licensees, chilling effect and chilled work environment concerns continued to make up the highest percentage of allegations. Licensee employees raised twice as many chilled work environment concerns as contractors in 2021. According to the NRC, maintenance and operations departments were the most common departments to allegedly be chilled. Notably, the cause of the chilled environment was more often attributed to senior management, rather than lower-level supervisors.
The second largest category of allegations in 2021 related to discrimination concerns. These allegations came from 24 sites. Raising a concern to management was the most frequently claimed protected activity and termination the most cited adverse action. When the NRC published the 2021 report, it had not substantiated any of the retaliation concerns alleged in 2021. That said, half of the concerns that warranted an investigation remain open and were either being investigated or undergoing the NRC’s alternative dispute resolution process at the time of the report.
The NRC also reviewed allegations of wrongdoing and allegations of falsification, a subset of wrongdoing, at reactor licensees. Each category increased by nearly 60% in 2021. The NRC examined the data to identify trends and found that 37% of wrongdoing claims and 29% of falsification claims were raised by licensees. Another 14% of wrongdoing claims and 10% of falsification claims were NRC staff–suspected concerns. As for concerns raised by workers at sites, most were raised in the second and fourth quarters. The departments most often alleged to have engaged in wrongdoing and falsification were operations and security departments, and the most reported concern involved employees willfully violating procedures or being directed to do so.
For materials licensees, the NRC received 60% more allegations in 2021 than in 2020. And like in 2020, most of these allegations involved exempt distribution products, which include gunsights and other self-luminous products, smoke detectors, and silicon chips. The NRC attributes the increase in related allegations to greater consumer focus on the sale of these products on the internet. This greater focus, in turn, is believed to be the result of a concerned individual sharing their positive experience with the NRC’s allegation program via social media.
In sum, while the 2021 Allegation Program Annual Trends Report showed an increase in allegations from 2020, the total number of allegations is still low in comparison to previous years. It is yet to be seen how workers returning onsite in increasing numbers will impact the number of allegations the NRC receives in 2022 and beyond.
Morgan Lewis routinely assists licensees responding to allegations and provides training on detecting and preventing discrimination and a chilling effect. We will continue closely following NRC allegation program developments.