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Investigation reveals concerns with Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Callaway

Thursday, May 20, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:10 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 21, 2011
Since 2005, there have been at least 17 documented cases of alleged discrimination at the Callaway Nuclear Generating plant, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act.

A radio version of this story was broadcast Thursday on KBIA/91.3 FM and is still available online.

A pattern emerges

It's difficult to wade through the jargon of Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection reports, but they show a pattern of issues with the Callaway Nuclear Plant's corrective action program, the main avenue through which employees report concerns, since 2003. Despite the repeated issues, the NRC continues to treat findings of "low-significance" as "non-cited violations" because they are entered into the same corrective action program.

Here are some examples of the issues:

  • In 2005, the NRC discovered an "adverse trend" with corrective actions that were ineffective. In 2007, a similar "adverse trend" was found with the "threshold" that plant employees used for identifying issues. The report listed six examples of issues that the Callaway plant failed to identify.
  • In 2008, the plant “did not always appropriately prioritize and evaluate conditions adverse to quality." Inspectors listed 11 examples.
  • In 2009, inspectors discovered requests in the corrective action program from 2002 that had not been completely resolved.


COLUMBIA — 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, would allow him to ensure more safety in the nuclear power industry.

“I found a lot of the people at the NRC don’t walk the talk,” Criscione said. “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, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission 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. There were 11 at Callaway, including eight in 2007.

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

When employees settle cases, though, alternative dispute resolution policies close any investigation into the alleged discrimination. That means people who discriminate against employees face no Nuclear Regulatory Commission sanctions. That’s just wrong, Criscione and others believe.

The six-figure safety issue

Criscione concedes that the safety problem he complained about would not have led 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.

"I asked (Criscione) if he's written a corrective action report," Olmstead said. "He told me he had, but it had been shut down almost immediately with no action taken, which surprised me given it was pretty unique problems 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,” Olmstead said. “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, "a very fair, very generous settlement," Criscione said. Second, and more important, he believed the settlement would not prevent him from pursuing a Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation into his safety concern – and the subsequent discrimination complaint.

“I’ve been dragging them kicking and screaming more or less into this,” Criscione said. “(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.”

Open policies

In 2004, the commission implemented a revamped alternative dispute resolution program to settle discrimination cases faster than full investigations allowed. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission brochure describes the program as promoting "a safety-conscious work environment."

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

The alternative dispute resolution 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, an attorney specializing in whistleblower issues in Washington D.C., helped frame the alternative dispute resolutoin policies but doesn’t think they match her aim.

“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,” Garde said. “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 Nuclear Regulatory Commission encourages licensees to go through mediation by ensuring that investigations will be closed so long as the settlement agreement doesn’t prohibit an employee from raising concerns in the future.

In Criscione’s case, AmerenUE attorney Patrick Hickey forwarded his settlement agreement to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in an e-mail to certify that it fit alternative dispute resolution policies. The e-mail was characterized as "relating to Mr. Criscione's employment at Callaway."

“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 wrote.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Office of Enforcement Chief Nick Hilton responded to Hickey’s e-mail: “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.

If a settlement involves a safety concern, Garde said, that concern still should go through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s allegation process to ensure plant managers and supervisors are held accountable.

Nationally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved 12 settlement agreements submitted along the lines of its alternative dispute resolution policies in 2008. All but one settlement was negotiated before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission met with the plant operators, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents.

Criscione's discrimination case ultimately was investigated, though.

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.

"Safety-conscious work environment means employees are free to speak their minds," Steele said, "No fear of losing your job, and being respected in the workplace."

Steele would not speak about individual cases, including Criscione's. In general though, Steele sticks with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's assertion that the plant has a safety-conscious work environment.

"In the past, we've had some issues," Steele said. "...It's been a few years since we've had any issues."

Even Steele, though, recognizes that alternative dispute resolution policies are contentious.

"There are a lot of split camps on this," Steele said. "I think it is important for companies to find a way to resolve issues."

Steele praised alternative dispute resolution because it is faster than investigations that left people suspicious of each other. Ideally, though, Steele doesn't ever want issues to reach alternative dispute resolution.

"If we get to ADR, personally, I think we missed something.”

An attempt to reach commission investigators familiar with the Callaway plant was redirected to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson Victor Dricks.

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

“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. ...You can ask me questions all afternoon, but that’s the only answer you’ll get,” Dricks said.

An AmerenUE attorney always is present during interviews such as those Dricks cited, Olmstead said.

“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,” Olmstead said.

KBIA reporter Rebecca Townsend contributed to this report.


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Comments

Samuel Blais May 20, 2010 | 12:53 a.m.

That's quite an interesting story, but what I look foward is the reaction of the NRC: this is a chance to further improve it's safety culture and credibility to the public.

Obviously, the nuclear industry has a lot of potential, I just hope they can turn opportunity into reals improvements.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking May 20, 2010 | 12:26 p.m.

It wouold have been nice, in this article, if an senior engineer or other expert was asked about the merit of Criscione's safety concern.

Here's the problem. Whistleblower laws are needed to protect those that bring valid safety concerns, but they also can be abused by employees looking to enhance their job security, or get a settlement. Without knowing the details of the concern, and in the absence of expert commentary, it can't be concluded which type of incident this was.

The term "shut down" is also critical here. If "shut down" meant that the generators were not producing electricity (using the steam from the reactor), then it is likely that not inserting the control rods would not have been of concern. To my understanding, the heat from the reactor would have simply been bypassed to the cooling towers and wasted. Perhaps not correct procedure, and perhaps somewhat wasteful, but not a safety concern.

If "shut down" meant the reactor cooling system was shut down also, not inserting the rods would have led to an overtemperature emergency rod activation (a so called "scram") in a short time. Again, not correct procedure, but not a safety concern.

The concern may have been without merit, and this is why Ameren didn't act on it. Furthermore, for an employee in his position to make a safety concern submission like this may well have showed management that he doesn't really know his stuff (if I'm correct in my knowledge of reactor operation), and might be responsible for the adverse events that followed. Same with the employee that helped him.

What this article does not show is a cover-up or persecution of whistleblowers by Ameren. There are too many unanswered questions to make any conclusions from this.

DK

(Report Comment)
Samuel Blais May 20, 2010 | 1:20 p.m.

I just don't think this was the point of the article. Yes, the merit can surely be questionable: not every concern is real and therefore we must use our critical judgment.

However, I feel the point was that we must listen to these concerns, hence the discrimination problem. Of course I'm pretty sure he would have revised his claims after some time (as you said, it was just heat dumping without producing electricity, probably not the worst thing in the world).

When you are concerned about something, the best thing to do is to check the problem to see if its real or not. In that case, thoses worries would just have disappeared.

(Report Comment)
Lawrence Criscione July 26, 2010 | 8:51 p.m.

Mark,

The term “shut down” is critical, but not in the way you are using it.

None of the safety systems shut down on October 21, 2003. There was minimal danger of damage to the reactor core. The core was always being adequately cooled.

Was there any danger to the public when the Northwest Airline pilots overflew their flight path by 35 minutes last spring? Was there any danger to the public when Richard Nixon impeded the investigation of G. Gordon Liddy’s break-in at the Watergate hotel? There does not need to be danger to the public for incompetence or integrity to be of concern.

The term “shut down” can be used as a noun, a verb or an adjective. It can be loosely defined or broadly defined. A central problem in the investigation of the October 21, 2003 incident is that the Shift Manager and Control Room Supervisor successfully used the ambiguities of the term “shut down” to bamboozle the US NRC interrogator who was investigating the incident.

Not everyone at the US NRC is trained in nuclear operations – typically the interrogators have a law enforcement background. Although the NRC’s junior Resident Inspector for Callaway Plant was present during the interrogation, he did not adequately understand the details of the incident and was of no help to the interrogator.

If you are driving up and down the rows of a parking lot looking for a parking space, you might broadly define this as “parking” your car. A more narrow definition of parking your car would be using the lever on your steering column to change your transmission mode from “Drive” to “Park”.

On October 21, 2003 at 01:00 Callaway Plant began shutting down (broad definition). When the shutdown began the reactor was operating at 100% power and for the next 11 hours and 55 minutes a shutdown of the reactor was being conducted which started with slowly lowering reactor power and ended with the completion of a Shutdown Margin calculation (the final administrative paperwork needed to call the reactor “shutdown”). This shutdown was being actively driven by the operators. It is obviously…

(Report Comment)
Lawrence Criscione July 26, 2010 | 8:52 p.m.

…nothing that inadvertently happened.

At 10:12:35 the operators at Callaway Plant manually tripped the main turbine. Due to the combined affects of Xenon-135 and a rapid 6°F rise in reactor coolant temperature, the reactor shut down (narrow definition). By “shut down”, I mean that the reactor went substantially subcritical at a power level where it would transit into the source range without any operator action. This shutdown was inadvertent: it was not intended by the operators. The operators had only intended to manually trip the main turbine. The shutdown of the reactor went unrecognized for 67 minutes (until the channel 2 Source Range Nuclear Instrument energized at 11:25 and annunciated an alarm on the Main Control Board). After recognizing the reactor was in the source range with its control rods still at their last critical rod heights, the operators did not immediately insert the control rods. Instead, they waited forty minutes. Since the Outage Control Center was expecting the reactor shutdown to occur around noon, the forty minute delay allowed the control room personnel to give the rest of the plant the impression that the reactor was being actively shut down at 12:05 when the control rods were inserted; until February 2007 no one outside of the control room was aware that when the control rods were being inserted at 12:05 they were not being inserted to shut the reactor down – they were being inserted on a reactor which had inadvertently passively shut down 106 minutes earlier.

Despite the fact that the Operations Manager was in the control room during the time frame when the reactor was in the source range with the control rods at their last critical rod heights, the inadvertent shutdown was never reported to the Outage Control Center; it was never documented until February 2007 when I accidently uncovered it while reviewing data for a revision to the Reactor Shutdown procedure.

This incident is still relevant. The Operations Manager in 2003 has since been promoted to Plant Director. The Shift Manager involved in the incident has since been promoted to Operations Training Manager. To this day, both men refuse to admit that anything untoward occurred on October 21, 2003.

What did Northwest Airlines do to their inattentive pilots? Would you fly Northwest airlines if you found out that instead of capturing the incident for “lessons learned” and “corrective actions”, the management of Northwest Airlines (from the Operations Manager to the CEO) covered up the incident?

In nuclear power, integrity matters (or at least I once thought it was supposed to).

I cannot fully address all the aspects of the October 21, 2003 Incident in the 3000 characters allotted to me in this forum, but if you or anyone else has any desire to discuss this incident further please feel free to contact me (or, if possible, I can reply in this forum).

Lawrence S. Criscione, PE
LSCriscione@hotmail.com

(Report Comment)
Darrell Liles November 11, 2010 | 7:38 a.m.

Sadly this happens not only in commercial reactors but in the research reactors as well; even federally operated research reactors. Raise a valid concern because it is the right thing to do and you risk losing your reputation, bonuses, pay, even employment!

(Report Comment)

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