Friday, June 11, 2010

Safety Culture Issue at Callaway. Or Not.

We just read a KBIA* report on the handling of an employee’s safety concern at the Callaway nuclear plant that piqued our interest. This particular case was first reported in 2009 but has not had widespread media attention so we are passing it on to you.

The history seems straightforward: an employee raised a safety concern after an operational incident, was rebuffed by management, drafted a discrimination complaint for the U.S. Dept. of Labor, received (and accepted) a $550K settlement offer from the plant owner, and went to work elsewhere. The owner claimed the settlement fell under the NRC’s Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process, and the NRC agreed.

We have no special knowledge of, nor business interest in, this case. It may be a tempest in a tea pot but we think it raises some interesting questions from a safety culture perspective.

First, here is another instance where an employee feels he must go outside the organization to get attention to a safety concern. The issue didn't seem to be that significant, at most an oversight by the operators or a deficient procedure. Why couldn’t the plant safety culture process his concern, determine an appropriate resolution, and move on?

Second, why was the company so ready to pony up $550K? That is a lot of dough and seems a bit strange. Even the employee noted that it was a generous offer. It makes one wonder what else was going on in the background. To encourage licensees to participate in ADR, the NRC closes investigations into alleged discrimination against employees when an ADR settlement is reached. Can safety essentially be for sale under ADR if an owner can settle with an employee?

Third, what happened to the original safety concern? According to another source,** the NRC found the operators’ actions to be “not prudent” but did not penalize any operators. Did the plant ever take any steps to address the issue to avoid repetition?

* P. Sweet and R. Townsend, KBIA Investigative Report: Looking Into Callaway Nuclear Power Plant’s “Safety Culture” (May 24, 2010).  KBIA is an NPR-member radio station owned by the U. of Missouri school of journalism.

**  FOCUS/Midwest website, "Did Ameren pay a whistleblower to shut up and go away?" (Jan. 4, 2009).

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