Waynesboro - Construction continues on Georgia Power’s expansion of the Vogtle nuclear plant south of Augusta. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded a corporate executive at the project had violated regulations when he dismissed a worker who had raised safety concerns there. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

NRC: Exec wrong for ousting nuclear worker who had safety concerns

An executive working on Georgia Power’s Vogtle nuclear expansion violated regulations when he ousted an employee who had raised safety concerns about welds and other issues, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The punishment hammered out in mediation with federal regulators requires the executive to discuss that violation at five industry forums and in new employee orientation, the NRC announced this week.

But that discipline isn’t nearly tough enough, a nuclear safety watchdog has complained. He also questioned why the Georgia Power affiliate that employed the executive at the time, Southern Nuclear Operating Company, wasn’t also penalized.

Meanwhile, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the original safety concerns “were appropriately addressed through the allegations process and there are no outstanding concerns related to this case.” When pressed, he did not offer specifics on actions taken or answer whether the concerns were proven valid.

The executive, Thomas B. Saunders, was contracts and procurement director for construction. He had held a number of leadership positions over about a decade at Vogtle, according to his LinkedIn page. That page now lists him as Georgia Power’s project oversight director at the multibillion-dollar project south of Augusta.

According to the NRC, a mechanical planner for a contractor had raised “numerous safety-related welding and module fit-up concerns” at Vogtle in 2014 and 2015. The worker returned to the project in July of 2017. Two days later, Saunders, who was aware the worker had raised previous safety concerns, had another Southern Nuclear official remove him from the site, according to the NRC’s order. The next day the worker was fired, according to regulators.

The NRC order said Saunders acknowledges a violation of employee protection regulations.

Georgia Power, which like Southern Nuclear is part of Atlanta-based Southern Company, issued a statement saying it is “committed to a safety conscious work environment where employees feel free to raise technical or quality concerns without fear of reprisal” and that Saunders has been reassigned to other duties.

Edwin Lyman, the acting director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, criticized the NRC’s settlement.

“I don’t think it is adequate,” he said. He added later, “This looks like Southern is getting off the hook very easily.”

Lyman, who said he is not privy to the results of the federal investigation, said “the public shaming” isolates the individual executive.

Glenn Carroll, coordinator of Nuclear Watch South, compared the settlement to “the grade-school punishment of writing one’s name on the blackboard 100 times.”

She emailed, “We are terribly concerned to be hearing in 2019, five years and literally billions of dollars after the fact, that nuclear safety allegations at Vogtle have been kept from the public and the agency charged with protecting the public cannot say what it has done to address the safety concerns.”

Several years ago, the NRC raised concerns about actions by a main contractor that worked on materials for nuclear projects, including Vogtle. One involved possible misconduct related to welder training at Chicago Bridge & Iron’s Lake Charles facility in Louisiana.

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