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Only rarely does the specter of criminality enter the picture, requiring a level of malfeasance - intentional conduct or recklessness - that is beyond the boundaries of conventional safety culture.
The potential for criminal liability raises several issues. What is the nexus between safety culture and criminal behavior? What is the significance of the increased frequency of criminal prosecutions following major accidents or scandals in nuclear and other industries? And where does culpability really lie - with individuals? culture? the corporation? or the complex socio-technical systems within which individuals act?
If one has been paying close attention to the news fairly numerous examples of criminal prosecutions involving safety management issues across a variety of industries and regulatory bodies is occurring. It is becoming quite a list of late. We thought this would be an appropriate time to take stock of these trends and their implications for nuclear safety management.
We have prepared a table* summarizing relevant experience from the nuclear and other high risk industries. (The link is to a pdf file as it is impractical to display the complete table within this blog post.) Below is a table snippet showing a key event: the criminal prosecutions associated with the Davis Besse reactor vessel head corrosion in 2001/2002. First Energy, the owner/operator, pleaded guilty to criminal charges and two lower level employees were found guilty at trial. A third individual, a contractor working for First Energy, was acquitted at trial.
More currently high level executives of TEPCO, the owner/operator of the Fukushima plant in Japan, were charged, though the circumstances are a bit odd. Prosecutors had twice declined to bring criminal charges but were ultimately overruled by a citizens panel. The case is expected to be difficult to prove. Nonetheless this is an attempt to hold the former TEPCO Chairman and heads of the nuclear division criminally accountable.
The only other recent examples in the U.S. nuclear industry that we could identify involved falsification of documents, in one instance by a chemistry manager at Indian Point and the other a security officer at River Bend.** One has pleaded guilty and sentenced to probation; the other case has been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
Looking beyond nuclear, the picture is dominated by several major operational accidents - the Deepwater Horizon drill rig explosion and the explosion of the Upper Big Branch coal mine owned by Massey Energy. Deepwater resulted in guilty pleas by the three corporations involved in the drilling operation - BP, Transocean and Halliburton - with massive criminal and civil fines. BP’s plea included felony manslaughter. Several employees also faced criminal charges. Two faced involuntary manslaughter charges in addition to violations of the Clean Water Act. The manslaughter charges were later dropped by prosecutors. One employee pleaded guilty to the Clean Water Act violations and was sentenced to probation, the other went to trial and was acquitted.
The Massey case is noteworthy in that criminal charges ultimately climbed the corporate ladder all the way to the CEO. Ultimately he was acquitted of felony charges of securities fraud and making false statements, but he “was convicted of a single count of conspiring to violate federal safety standards; he was not convicted of any count holding him responsible for the 2010 accident at the Upper Big Branch mine.”*** It “is widely believed to be the first CEO of a major U.S. corporation to be convicted of workplace safety related charges following an industrial accident.”**** Three other individuals also pleaded or were found guilty of misdemeanor charges.
Next up are the auto companies, GM, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi. The GM scandal involved the installation of faulty ignition switches in cars that subsequently resulted in a number of deaths. GM entered into a plea agreement with DOJ admitting criminal wrongdoing and paid large monetary fines. As of this time no criminal charges have been brought against GM employees. VW and Mitsubishi have both admitted to manipulating fuel economy and emissions testing and there is speculation that other auto manufacturers could be in the same boat. The investigations are ongoing at this time but criminal pleas at the corporate level are all but certain.
Last in this pantheon is the city of Flint water quality scandal. The Attorney General of Michigan recently filed criminal charges against three individuals and promised “more charges soon”. The interesting aspect here is that the three charged are all government workers - one for the city and two for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. And the two state officials have been charged with misconduct in office, a felony. Essentially regulators are being held accountable for their oversight. As David Ullmann, a former chief of DOJ’s environmental crimes section, stated, “It’s extremely unusual and maybe unprecedented for state and local officials to be charged with criminal drinking water violations.” This bears watching.
In Part 2 we will analyze the trends in these cases and draw some insights into the possible significance of efforts to criminalize safety performance. In Part 3 we will offer our observations regarding implications for nuclear safety management and some thoughts on approaches to mitigate the need for criminalization.
* Criminal Prosecutions of Safety Related Events (May 22, 2016).
** We posted on the Indian Point incident on May 12, 2014 and the River Bend case on Feb. 20, 2015.
*** A. Blinder, "Mixed Verdict for Donald Blankenship, Ex-Chief of Massey Energy, After Coal Mine Blast," New York Times (Dec. 3, 2015 corrected Dec. 5, 2015).
**** K. Maher, "Former Massey Energy CEO Sentenced to 12 Months in Prison," Wall Street Journal (April 6, 2016). The full article may only be accessible to WSJ subscribers.