TVA engineer Joni Johnson became a federal whistleblower. She says her world changed when she ran into what she described as a flawed safety culture at the plant where she worked. Mrs. Johnson, 52, was used to going to work at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant where she has been employed since 1987. She is a married mother of two sons, with an engineering degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Ms. Johnson worked full-time while finishing school, sometimes putting in 60-hour work weeks while pursuing an electrical engineering degree.
Ms. Johnson’s work at TVA has been recognized by her colleagues and managers. She provided good performance reviews, internal awards and plenty of notes from co-workers thanking her for dedication and quality work. Performance reviews note that Johnson “always accepts ownership,” has strong technical knowledge, is detail-oriented and “provides excellent guidance.”
Raised in a large family in Connecticut, Ms. Johnson is the daughter of an Army veteran of World War II and the Korean War. Her mother was born and raised in Carbon Hill. Her father worked on nuclear-related projects for the Army in Maryland and New Mexico late in his career. Though engineering was not a booming career field for women in the 1970s, Ms. Johnson’s father encouraged her to pursue technical work and she did. But in a male-dominated culture, it wasn’t always easy.
Ms. Johnson has been certified as a root cause analyst, charged with figuring out what went wrong with a system, a piece of equipment or process. It was through work on a root cause analysis for a failed cooling system motor at Browns Ferry that Ms. Johnson first encountered what she said was troubling resistance to getting to the bottom of a problem and identifying what went wrong. She had this to say:
It’s a very detailed and scientific process. Your conclusions are based in fact and data. You accumulate them based on fact and data. There can be no unvalidated assumptions allowed in the root cause process.
Ms. Johnson said the completion of the root cause report and the issues it cited led to strong pushback from some managers, accusations against her and eventually poor performance reviews. She said a second root cause report she wrote on software problems affecting industrial safety led to similar responses, and her career suffered. Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigators met with Ms. Johnson last fall and agreed to look into her allegation that she was retaliated against by TVA for speaking out about safety concerns.
TVA has embarked on a substantial corrective action plan at Browns Ferry and said it has seen a major turnaround in the improvement of its safety culture. Ms. Johnson filed a discrimination claim, but was unsuccessful in a mediation effort with TVA. Ms. Johnson said her decision to speak out now was spurred by a desire to help ensure the next person who expresses concerns about safety at Browns Ferry will be taken seriously and not “bullied.” The whistleblower said she remains “pro nuclear power.” She added:
What we do is very important. We control the strongest form of energy on planet earth. I’m raising a family here. I don’t take shortcuts when it comes to nuclear power. I’m sorry to have been around others that do.
It’s a sad commentary on the times that whistleblowers have had to become so active combating fraud in Corporate America. These men and women who report corporate fraud perform a tremendous service to their fellow citizen. It’s very important that whistleblowers be protected from retaliation by their employers.
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