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.”
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.