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 courtesy-of-amerenueFOCUS/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information about the shutdown several years later, alleged that the shift supervisor allowed control rods to remain withdrawn for approximately 90 minutes “to avoid having to admit to upper management that his crew lost control of the reactor.”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 (rwklose@sbcglobal.net)

UPDATE: The Associated Press reported this story on June 17, 2009.

3 thoughts on “Did Ameren pay a whistleblower to shut up and go away?

  1. Many thanks for this piece (forwarded to me and others by Dave Kraft). And good luck with the reincarnation of FOCUS Midwest!
    Could you please let me know if Ameren responds to your request for a comment? 314-725-7676
    We’re now fighting against AmerenUE’s efforts to get the Missouri Legislature to throw out the Missouri law that outlaws Construction Work in Progress — the law that Missouri voters overwhelmingly had enacted in 1976. Ameren says it cannot build a 2nd Callaway reactor without reinstating CWIP — that is, without making ratepayers give Ameren a blank check for construction costs DURING CONSTRUCTION. UE had stopped building Callaway-2 in Feb. 1977, after our November 1976 victory (via statewide petitions and then at the polls).

  2. I’ve wondered what Blago received from Ameren a few months ago when he let their dirty coal plants off the hook.

  3. I wonder, is Ameren TRYING to be as tone deaf as GM (who killed the electric car, while promoting gas hungry SUVs that reasonable consumers won’t buy)?

    The risk-management lesson learned by the engineering community from the Chernobyl melt down was summarized as the need to create a “culture of safety”. After the failure of the dam at the Taum Sauk upper reservoir one might have thought that the reconstruction there would offer an excellent opportunity for Ameren to construct their own wind farm similar to the Blue Grass Ridge facility in Gentry County (http://www.ameren.com/PurePower/ADC_PurePowerFacilityBRW.pdf)

    After all, the transmission lines are already there, Proffit Mountain is 1,900 feet high, out of sight from folks who might object on aesthetic grounds (NIMB), and this Hydroelectric STORAGE facility would seem the perfect equalizer for intermittent wind energy production. Where is the plan for the Taum Sauk wind farm? It doesn’t seem to exist. http://www.ameren.com/TaumSauk/ADC_RestorationProject.asp

    Instead, Ameren UE seems content to pay other electric generation companies for their wind investment, and to try to force Missouri residents to pay IN ADVANCE for construction of yet another nuclear facility.

    Tone deaf.
    By the way, did anyone at Ameren UE acturally lose their jobs when the Taum Sauk dam collapsed? Perhaps top management is not bright enough to see the changes that must be made. Perhaps, such dim bulbs are the ones that need to be replaced.

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