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Former worker says AmerenUE dropped shutdown inquiry at plant

Thursday, June 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

 COLUMBIA — A former AmerenUE engineer is accusing the utility and the federal agency that regulates nuclear power of failing to adequately investigate a 2003 incident that led to a two-hour unplanned shutdown at the Callaway reactor.

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation found that control room operators delayed a move to insert control rods — equipment required to keep the reactor shut down — since the error occurred just before a scheduled shutdown for maintenance. The NRC called the delay "not prudent" but noted it did not threaten human safety.

After discovering the problem four years after it occurred during a routine review and alerting plant managers, nuclear engineer Lawrence Criscione claimed retaliation by his supervisors, including a negative performance review and the loss of his operators' license.

Criscione was paid more than $500,000 in a confidential settlement in exchange for his resignation in 2008 and an agreement to not pursue any future legal claims against the St. Louis-based utility, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

But he continues to push his discrimination claim with members of Congress, state lawmakers and the NRC, which ended its investigation after the settlement. Although his complaint spurred the NRC review, Criscione argues in the documents that had he known the agency would drop its investigation, he wouldn't have accepted the company's payment.

Criscione, who lives in Springfield, Ill., but works for First Energy Corp. at its western Pennsylvania nuclear plant, declined an AP interview request.

While acknowledging that the risk to the public from the Oct. 21, 2003, incident was minimal, Criscione suggests that the plant's handling of what he calls a "cover-up" should raise questions about public confidence in Ameren's operations.

"The real safety significance is that if the operators of a reactor plant cannot be trusted to be honest about mistakes, then they cannot be trusted to inform the public of radiation releases," he said in an e-mail, obtained by the AP, to state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, a St. Louis Democrat.

Ameren spokesman Mike Cleary said the company, part of Ameren Corp., doesn't discuss current or former employees "as a matter of policy." But he also said "employees and contractors at the plant have a right to express safety concerns to either AmerenUE management or the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission without fear of retaliation."

"The 2003 incident cited by Mr. Criscione has been thoroughly investigated by both AmerenUE and the NRC, with no findings of wrongdoing in the matter," he said.

An NRC official concurred that the federal agency considers the matter closed after an investigation that included nearly 100 interviews led to "procedural shortcomings" that Ameren has since addressed.

"We conducted a very thorough investigation of this incident," spokesman Victor Dricks said. "We have gone to great lengths to ensure that every public issue brought to our attention has been addressed. ... No stone was left unturned."

In the documents obtained by the AP, Criscione says that two of the plant managers involved in the 2003 incident have since been promoted.

That response worries Oxford, who conveyed her concerns to NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko in a May 29 letter also obtained by the AP.

"Operators who cover up their mistakes and managers who 'look the other way' instead of thoroughly investigating ... cannot be tolerated," she said in the letter. "We, the public, must be assured of the honesty and credibility of the operators and managers of our nation's nuclear facilities."

A year before Criscione's settlement, former Callaway plant employee Clark Fuhlage reached his own confidential agreement with Ameren after he was fired the previous summer. He claimed that supervisors ordered him to downgrade the performance appraisals of his own employees who had spoken candidly with inspectors from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an industry group.

Fuhlage, who also declined to discuss the specifics of his settlement, said that whistle-blowers pay a high price for coming forward and often have their credibility questioned.

"There's a huge reluctance on the part of the NRC and the industry to take (internal critics) seriously," he said. "There's a kind of a cry-wolf syndrome."

 

 


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