TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The chief of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) pledged Friday to set a tone where staffers can disagree with their bosses without fear of retaliation.
Responding to an in-house survey that reflected concern about freedom to dissent, Allison Macfarlane said it's important to encourage debate in an agency dealing constantly with highly technical issues.
"I maintain an open-door policy myself," Macfarlane said in an interview with The Associated Press after visiting two nuclear power plants in Michigan. "Any employee is welcome to make an appointment and talk to me. We encourage an open, collaborative work environment. We encourage all managers and supervisors to have similar policies."
Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, made public the NRC survey results this week during a hearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Conducted in April 2013, the survey found that 75 percent of employees who had submitted official objections to agency decisions believed they had been given poorer performance evaluations as a result.
Additionally, 63 percent reported being excluded from work activities and 25 percent said they had been "passed over for career development," the survey report said.
Markey said Friday that during the past two years, his office has received "an unprecedented number of calls from NRC employees all across the country who report being retaliated against for doing their jobs."
"My concerns about the chilling work environment at the NRC have been conveyed on numerous occasions to the commission, but the agency has thus far failed to take action," he said.
Macfarlane said the survey sample was small. Just 39 staffers who had formally disagreed with agency decisions were invited to participate, and 24 responded. The NRC has 3,700 employees.
Because of that, she said, the extent of whistleblower fear is unclear. Even so, she said the agency will look into the survey's findings, adding that she didn't know whether the complaints of downgraded evaluations were true.
"This is certainly an issue we want to address and we'll take lessons to this and will look to improve our processes," Macfarlane said. "It's very important to encourage debate. I come from academia. Science progresses with debate."