Science, Health and Technology
12:00 am
Mon May 24, 2010

Investigative Report: Looking Into Callaway Nuclear Power Plant’s “Safety Culture”

Note: The following report was originally released in May 2010.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials and documents describe the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant just south of Fulton, MO as having a safety conscious work environment. However, since 2005, there have been at least 14 documented allegations of discrimination against employees for reporting safety concerns at the Callaway plant, according to commission reports.

By Patrick Sweet and Rebecca Townsend

A number of issues documented in the plant’s corrective action program- that’s the main avenue in which employees report safety concerns, have not been reviewed properly or prioritized appropriately, according to commission reports. Subsequent reports regularly list similar issues with dealing with concerns.

One employee who was not happy with how his concern was dealt with received a $550,000 settlement after he was discriminated against for pursuing safety concerns. KBIA’s Patrick Sweet and Rebecca Townsend have spent months investigating these questions, and bring this report.

Larry Criscione wants to inspect commercial nuclear reactors, because he wants to hold people accountable.

That would be the next in a long line of jobs in nuclear science that Criscione has held. He used to be a midshipman on nuclear Navy submarines. Then he became a senior reactor operator at the Callaway Nuclear Plant south of Fulton. Now, he works behind a desk for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Becoming an inspector, he said, allows him to ensure more safety in the nuclear power industry. He says the industry’s safety culture is lacking.

“I found a lot of the people at the NRC don’t walk the talk. They’ll speak the safety culture, but when you bring a problem to them, they act like bureaucrats.”

Criscione is addicted to procedure. After all, it’s his stubborn pursuit for action on a safety concern that ended his employment at AmerenUE’s Callaway plant. The company paid Criscione $550,000 to settle a complaint that the utility discriminated against him after he raised a safety concern.

That certainly wasn’t the first – nor the last – time that an employee complained of retribution after citing safety problems. Since 2005, there have been at least 17 documented cases of alleged discrimination at the Callaway plant, that’s according to NRC documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents are heavily redacted but show that seven cases were found to be unsubstantiated, three warranted no commission action, three went through the commission’s mediation process (known as alternative dispute resolution), and four were settled without going through the commission’s mediation process.

Nationally, from 2006 to 2009, there were a total of 311 allegations of discrimination at all 61 of the country’s nuclear plants. In that time period, there were 11 at Callaway, including eight in 2007. The average for the time period was just more than five.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission encourages its licensees to mediate and settle such complaints using standard procedures. Alternative dispute resolution policies, also referred to as ADR, are intended to encourage employees to continue reporting safety issues without worrying about discrimination, according to an NRC brochure.

When employees settle cases, though, ADR closes any investigation into the alleged discrimination. That means people who discriminate against employees face no NRC sanctions. That’s just wrong, says Criscione and others.

Criscione concedes that the safety problem he complained about would not have lead to disaster. The historic episodes at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are a far cry away from what happened at the Callaway plant.

But the problem was well worth noting, Criscione said. In 2005, he discovered while reviewing paperwork that operators in the Callaway plant control room failed to insert control rods into the reactor for roughly 100 minutes after it had shut down in October 2003. The control room is much like the driver’s seat in a car, and control rods are like the parking brake; they prevent the reactor from undergoing nuclear fission.

Criscione filed a report through Callaway’s corrective action program, the primary avenue through which employees call attention to safety issues. The shutdown didn’t go according to procedure, and Criscione thought AmerenUE should review the matter so they could prevent it from happening again.

Criscione’s bosses disagreed. He lobbied for action on his report and got nowhere.

Frustrated about the low priority his report received, Criscione enlisted the help of a senior employee, Gary Olmstead. He hoped a similar report from Olmstead would get more attention. Olmstead says he was taken aback by Criscione’s request.

“I told him I was surprised I’d never heard of any problems we’d have on those shut downs. I asked (Criscione) if he’s written a corrective action report. He told me he had, but it’d been shut down almost immediately with no action taken, which surprised me given it was pretty unique problems associated with reactor shutdown.”

Olmstead filed the twin report. Management gave it slightly higher priority, but both men say it brought similar inaction – at least in terms of safety. By the end of the process, Callaway managers passed over Criscione for promotion in January 2006, and Criscione lost his senior reactor-operating license.

The alleged discrimination doesn’t surprise Olmstead. He said he also had a strained relationship with a manager after he rewrote a report for the anonymous employee concerns program after the manager failed to act on it. The small size of the department, Olmstead said, made it easy for the manager to identify him as the source of the complaint.

“I know it cost me money. The NRC said I must be imagining it, but I went from about to get a raise and a bonus about a week before employee concerns to getting called in and told I wasn’t getting a raise, wasn’t getting a bonus. I was told my performance just really wasn’t that great. It must have taken a severe drop in three weeks’ time.”

In 2007, Criscione had attorneys draft a complaint for the U.S. Department of Labor. They told AmerenUE their intentions, and the utility offered the settlement.

Criscione accepted the settlement for a couple of reasons. First, it was $550,000, which Criscione called “a very fair, very generous settlement.” Second, and more important, he believed the settlement would not prevent him from pursuing an NRC investigation into his safety concern – and the subsequent discrimination complaint. But after the settlement, the investigation was closed and he has had to fight for any attention to his concerns.

“I’ve been dragging them kicking and screaming more or less into this. (The commission) is doing everything they can to just close the issue and avoid investigation that the public expects them to do, (the public) expects them to investigate concerns.”

In 2004, the commission implemented a revamped alternative dispute resolution program to settle discrimination cases faster than full investigations allowed. An NRC brochure describes the program as promoting “a safety-conscious work environment.”

For the NRC, “safety-conscious work environment” is a buzzword often referred to in reports as the abbreviation “SCWE.” Inspectors examine a plant’s “safety-conscious work environment” by evaluating how comfortable plant employees are with reporting safety problems and how effective the avenues used to report them are.

The ADR policies are meant to promote quick and easy solutions to discrimination complaints. If an employee is less worried about being discriminated against, then the policies promote a safety-conscious environment.

Billie Garde is an attorney specializing in whistleblower issues in Washington D.C. She helped frame the ADR policies but she doesn’t think they match her original aim. She says that the current policies sometimes seem to put safety up for sale.

“The public interest community and the plaintiff’s bar essentially went into this whole ADR process saying that we don’t want safety to be for sale). We don’t want there to be a situation where a worker is in the position of settling his employment dispute and abandoning his safety concerns. And in some cases we think that that has happened.”

The NRC encourages licensees, like Callaway, to go through mediation by ensuring that investigations will be closed. But, the settlement agreement must not prohibit an employee from raising concerns in the future.

In Criscione’s case, AmerenUE attorney Patrick Hickey forwarded his settlement agreement to the NRC in an e-mail to certify that it fit ADR policies. The e-mail was characterized as “relating to Mr. Criscione’s employment at Callaway.”

The email says: “You will see that the language protecting Mr. Criscione’s right to raise safety concerns is substantially the same as in other Ameren settlements which have been approved,” Hickey writes.

Nick Hilton is with the NRC’s Office of Enforcement. He responded to Hickey’s email: He writes:  “The NRC has reviewed the subject settlement agreement and does not have any concerns regarding restrictive agreements.”

The e-mails confirm the existence of similar settlements. Once those settlements have been approved, the investigations are closed.

Criscione’s case also was closed, despite a letter specifically requesting that a settlement not close any investigations and that the settlement not be considered under the umbrella of ADR.

If a settlement involves a safety concern, Garde says, that concern still should go through the N-R-C’s allegation process to ensure plant managers and supervisors are held accountable.

In 2008, the N-R-C approved 12 settlement agreements submitted along the lines of its alternative dispute resolution policies. All but one settlement was negotiated before the N-R-C met with the plant operators, according to N-R-C documents.

Criscione’s discrimination case ultimately was investigated, though, after Criscione fought for it.

Tim Steele is the employee concerns coordinator at the Callaway Nuclear Plant. His is one of the corner offices in a room full of cubicles. Its most distinguishing feature, though, is the presentation board sitting on a small desk beside his door. It looks like a presentation polished for a high school science fair, but it’s actually an introduction to some of the more important policies protecting employees. Steele is charged with making sure employees’ rights to raise safety concerns are maintained, and he said he welcomes workers into his office any time.

He says safety-conscious work environment means employees are free to speak their minds, without fear of losing their jobs and being respected in the workplace.

Steele wouldn’t speak about individual cases, including Criscione’s. In general though, Steele sticks with the NRC’s assertion that the plant has a safety-conscious work environment.

He says, quote: “In the past, we’ve had some issues,” but he says “…It’s been a few years since we’ve had any issues.”

Steele, though, recognizes that ADR policies are contentious. He says “there are a lot of split camps on” the policies.

Steele praised ADR because it is faster than investigations that leave people suspicious of each other. Ideally, though, Steele doesn’t ever want issues to reach ADR.

Quote: “If we get to ADR, personally, I think we missed something.”

An attempt to reach NRC investigators familiar with the Callaway plant was redirected to NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks.

Asked about technical details related to Criscione’s case, Dricks was tight-lipped.

Dricks said: “The NRC interviewed more than 100 people as part of the safety concerns brought to our attention. Some operator performance issues were identified, but they did not endanger public health or safety.” He said, “You can ask me questions all afternoon, but that’s the only answer you’ll get.”

An AmerenUE attorney always is present during interviews such as those Dricks cited. Olmstead says the presence of an attorney influences the answers.

“Everybody that goes in that room is well aware that (the attorney) is there to keep track of what’s going on and immediately go to your boss.”

Larry Criscione believes in nuclear power as a safe energy source and is optimistic that a better culture of safety can be achieved. A lot of times, he says, safety concerns are handled appropriately. But sometimes, he says, they’re not.

This report was a collaboration between KBIA, Investigative Reports and Editors, and the Columbia Missourian.