The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has cited a second instance of a former executive on the Plant Vogtle nuclear project dismissing a worker who had previously raised safety concerns. Both the executive and his former employer, Southern Nuclear, say no NRC regulations were violated. Work is still underway on Vogtle, where in a gathering earlier this year the federal government announced additional loan guarantees for the project. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

NRC: Second nuclear exec wrongly ousted worker after safety concerns

The former top executive over Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle construction engaged in “deliberate misconduct” when he ousted a contract employee in part for raising safety concerns, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Mark Rauckhorst, executive vice president for the Vogtle project, retired from Georgia Power sister company Southern Nuclear Operating Company in 2018, according to a company spokesman. The dismissal of the contract worker occurred in late 2015.

Both Rauckhorst and the company say no NRC regulations were violated.

This marks the second instance where the NRC has faulted a Vogtle senior executive for dismissing a worker who had in previous years raised safety issues on the project, which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

The two new reactors south of Augusta are now slated to go into commercial operation by November of 2021 and 2022. But in a filing on Friday, staff and consultants for the Georgia Public Service Commission expressed doubts about whether those dates can be met.

The NRC on Thursday made public an official notice of violation against Rauckhorst and a settlement agreement with Southern Nuclear, which is helping to manage the project owned by Georgia Power and affiliates of other Georgia energy providers.

The federal agency said it “has placed a high value on nuclear industry employees being free to raise regulatory and safety concerns to the licensee or the NRC without fear of retaliation.”

“Senior executives directly influence a wide group of individuals, making their retaliation against individuals for engaging in protected activity particularly significant. Therefore, the NRC was concerned that both cases involved senior executives directing the adverse action.”

The settlement with the NRC carried no penalties for Southern Nuclear. The business, part of Atlanta-based Southern Company, agreed to steps aimed at its review process when employees face serious actions such as firings. And it committed to improve safety culture at the site, according to the NRC.

No determination has been made yet about what, if any, penalties might be faced by Rauckhorst, who was responsible for managing all aspects of construction and operations on the nation’s first new-from-scratch commercial nuclear power reactors in generations.

The NRC said that in December of 2015 Rauckhorst sent contractor Westinghouse a list of 14 workers to be dismissed from the Vogtle site. One of those workers was included “and subsequently terminated from employment, in part, because he engaged in protected activity by raising concerns regarding design and code compliance issues in 2013 and 2014,” according to the agency.

In October, the NRC announced a settlement with another Southern Nuclear executive, Thomas B. Saunders, who was contracts and procurement director for construction at the project. The NRC said Saunders acknowledged a violation of employee protection regulations when he had a different contracted worker dismissed in 2017. The mechanical planner, who was later fired, had previously raised safety concerns about welds and other issues.

Saunders’ settlement required him to discuss the violation at five industry forums and in new employee orientation. A nuclear safety watchdog complained the punishment wasn’t tough enough. Saunders shifted to work for Georgia Power and remained involved on the Vogtle project, the company said earlier this month.

In the latest case, the director of the NRC’s enforcement office highlighted to Rauckhorst the “significance of the underlying issue and the deliberate nature of your actions.”

Georgia Power spokesman Jeff Wilson wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “Southern Nuclear took NRC’s allegation very seriously and carefully reviewed the facts surrounding the December 2015 event. Southern Nuclear concluded that no violation occurred.”

The company agreed to mediation “because of its continued focus on safety, security, reliability and compliance with all legal and regulatory requirements.”

Rauckhorst told the AJC, “I, like the company, strongly disagree with the NRC’s conclusion.” The worker in question was not dismissed for raising past safety complaints, Rauckhorst said. He declined to say why the worker was let go.

Rauckhorst said after 40 years in the industry he retired from Southern Nuclear, but not because of the allegations. “It is unfortunate that this is something that happened at the end of my career.”

Sara Barczak, a senior consultant for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said she is concerned that safety issues “are apparently not being taken seriously by upper management.”

As for the safety issues, “how do we know they were all resolved?” she asked.

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell wrote in an email to the AJC that he had no further details to share on the kinds of safety issues raised in the Rauckhorst case. “The agency continues to conclude the Vogtle new reactor construction activity meets our requirements. The NRC will reserve a final decision on whether Southern can load fuel in the reactors until the company submits its final documentation for the relevant inspections, tests, analyses and other criteria laid out in the Vogtle licenses.”

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