Did Ameren pay a whistleblower to shut up and go away?
An engineer who raised safety concerns at AmerenUE’s Callaway nuclear power station received a six-figure settlement after accusing the company of retaliation.
According to correspondence sent to public officials, the Missouri-based subsidiary of Ameren Corp. paid at least $500,000 to induce Lawrence Criscione to resign in late 2007 — effectively stopping an investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
AmerenUE has recently applied for a license to build a second reactor at the Callaway site, approximately 10 miles southeast of Fulton, Mo. Concerns about operations at its current — and only — nuclear plant may weigh in the approval process.
Criscione, employed by AmerenUE from May 2002 until November 2007, declined to discuss terms of the confidential settlement with FOCUS/Midwest or his efforts to get state and federal regulators to take a closer look at operations at the 24-year-old plant.
But in a letter sent to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s office, dated Aug. 15, 2007, Criscione said that the Callaway plant “has a culture which discourages disagreement with upper management and which inhibits effective problem identification and resolution. The management of Callaway plant would prefer not to know about problems and is reluctant to fully investigate them.”
Criscione, a resident of Illinois who described himself to Durbin as “an ardent supporter” of nuclear power, wrote that he’d previously filed two allegations about Callaway operations with the NRC.
One of complaints concerned an incident on Oct. 21, 2003, when the plant’s operating crew lost control of reactivity and the plant inadvertently shut down. Criscione, who uncovered information about the shutdown several years later, alleged that the shift supervisor allowed control rods to remain withdrawn for approximately 90 minutes “to avoid having to admit to upper management that his crew lost control of the reactor.”
Criscione outlined his efforts to address the incident internally, and faulted plant managers for their unwillingness to penalize employees who attempted to “cover up” the incident.
The NRC investigated the incident and in August 2007 it found that the handling of the 2003 incident was “not prudent” and faulted the operators for failing to “exercise optimum reactivity management.” The NRC, however, did not penalize any of the operators involved in the incident, because Callaway’s operating procedures did not spell out a time limit for when control rods had to be inserted.
“I find this reasoning inane,” Criscione said in an e-mail to several Missouri state lawmakers, dated Sept. 29, 2008. “I believe any nuclear engineering professor will tell you that the most important task following an inadvertent reactor shutdown is to ensure the reactor remains shutdown by inserting the control rods. It amazes me that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be willing to turn a blind eye to such negligent behavior.”
In 2007, after pressing his concerns about the handling of the October 2003 incident, Criscione received an unfavorable performance evaluation and was denied a promotion. Believing that Callaway management was preparing to fire him, he filed complaints with the NRC and the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that he was the victim of retaliation.
AmerenUE then offered a settlement: It would pay Criscione if he resigned and dropped his labor-department action.
The utility didn’t require Criscione to drop his NRC complaint, but it didn’t have to: The commission closed the investigation on its own.
When Criscione called to find out why, agency officials told him it was the NRC’s policy not to pursue an investigation when parties agree to settle.
Criscione was angry about the outcome, as subsequent correspondence makes clear.
In a letter he’s shared with elected officials, dated Feb. 29, 2008, an NRC official attempts to explain to Criscione why the agency isn’t taking any further action and acknowledges the engineer’s frustration.
“You stated that had you known that the NRC would not investigate your complaint, you would not have settled with the licensee,” the official wrote.
“Please be assured, however, that the NRC will continue its oversight responsibility to assess the licensee’s [Ameren’s] safety conscious work environment.”
FOCUS/Midwest has asked an Ameren spokesman to comment on the settlement. — Roland Klose (firstname.lastname@example.org)
UPDATE: The Associated Press reported this story on June 17, 2009.