On Jan. 30, 2012, Byron Nuclear Generating Station lost operability to all of its safety-related equipment. At the time, Jim Hazen was the nuclear station operator responsible for the affected reactor, one of two at the Exelon-owned nuclear plant in Byron, Illinois. NSOs drive nuclear reactors like pilots fly jetliners — it’s mostly autopilot, except when something goes wrong. Hazen surveyed the control room’s instruments and advised taking actions that would trigger the plant’s diesel generators, switching the plant to backup power. According to multiple sources familiar with the incident’s details, including at least one who was directly involved, this was clearly the proper action to take.
But shift manager Ed Bendis rejected that advice. Hazen repeated it. Sources claim he repeated it several times. Bendis didn’t relent, and the reactor went without safety equipment for eight minutes, an eternity in fission time.
“For eight minutes, you’ve raised your middle finger to the meltdown gods,” one reactor operator said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If anything else happened in that window — and it’s a safe bet one problem causes another — you’re screwed.”
Without any operable safety equipment or a clear idea of what had caused the accident, operators knew the plant was vulnerable to any number of accident scenarios, ranging from the trivial to the catastrophic.
In the aftermath of the incident, the technical details didn’t bother the plant’s reactor operators — it had been an oddball event. The human element, however, was troubling. Following Hazen’s advice would have disconnected the reactor from its regular offsite power supply. In a statistics-obsessed nuclear industry where the “indicator” — a data point triggered by certain adverse conditions — is king and the technical classification of an incident can ruin a manager’s career, nobody likes to have a “loss of offsite power” incident happen on their watch. Least of all Ed Bendis, who had been exposed to some of the worst coercion dished out by Dave Hoots, who held a number of senior leadership positions at Byron through 2009 and is now Exelon’s chief of internal affairs. A wide range of Byron employees claim that, during his tenure at Byron, Hoots established himself as an ascendant manager by smashing operator morale — especially when recalcitrant operators insisted on prioritizing standards over scheduling. “Why would I ever restore morale?” he once reportedly asked a reactor operator. “You work better afraid.”
During the Jan. 30 incident, operators in the field eventually called the control room to report that a crucial transformer appeared to be on fire. This gave Hazen leverage. He acted to trigger the plant’s diesel generators and — just like he’d said it would — the safety equipment came back online, ending the event eight long minutes after it had begun.
“Those eight minutes symbolize over a decade of abuse,” said a plant source. “And you can never undo it. And it’s never forgotten.”
Many of the plant’s personnel believe that abuse contributed to multiple deaths and a rash of severe illnesses. It also included, according to this investigation, chronic neglect of working conditions and employee safety, as well as a raft of verifiable retaliation against the operators’ labor union for engaging in legally protected activity. Many of these patterns — including an arrangement surrounding plant employees’ medical benefits that appears to meet the criteria of the U.S. racketeering statute — persist.
The mistreatment matters because sources allege it was often meted out in retaliation for employee safety efforts that, though often critical and urgent, could have cut into Exelon’s bottom line. This retaliation produces a “chilling effect” within the plant that makes other employees feel uncomfortable about bringing up their own safety concerns. Though Byron Station has taken internal measures to monitor such chilling effects, sources say these measures have been unreliable and ineffective since at least 2000, when management attempted to persuade the employee responsible for tracking the related statistics to falsify his findings and then fired him when he refused to cooperate. Further, government regulation of safety culture falls into a gray area: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is tasked with investigating allegations related to chilling effects, but these allegations are notoriously hard to substantiate, and the bulk of NRC rules about safety culture are equivocal compared to other agency guidelines.
The NRC’s oversight of Byron Station has been anchored by Senior Resident Inspector Bruce Bartlett for over seven years. Bartlett’s tenure at Byron has coincided with a number of regulatory lapses, including one incident that appears to have been subjected to extensive coverup and obfuscation within the agency. Bartlett has also fumbled on a critical design flaw at the plant, currently under review, that is similar to flaws he failed to identify at Michigan’s Donald C. Cook Nuclear Generating Station, where his inspectorship ushered in one of the longest site-specific safety-related shutdowns in industry history.
NRC resident inspectors are limited to seven-year tours at individual nuclear sites in an attempt to ensure robust inspector objectivity. Bartlett’s tenure passed the seven-year mark on Christmas Day 2012, but he has been allowed to stay at Byron pending a transfer to the NRC’s regional office, which regulates the plants where he previously served as a resident inspector. Agency sources explained that the seven-year term limit is, in itself, already an ill-advised compromise — stricter term limits have been abandoned in the face of recruiting difficulties. Multiple agency sources contend that Bartlett’s case is illustrative of the resulting risks to inspector objectivity.
“Seven years is absurdly long,” one NRC source said. “By that point, you’re no longer an NRC asset. You’re an Exelon asset wearing an NRC hat. You start referring to problems at an Exelon plant as ‘our problems,’ ‘We have a problem’ — that kind of thing. In Bruce’s mind, he’s not seeing the line between himself and Exelon’s employees.”
Several of Byron’s operators contend that Bartlett frequently grandstands but has rarely taken substantive action. They point, in particular, to incidents when management compromised the safety of the control room environment while Bartlett looked on.
“We’ve been saying it for years: ‘NRC stands for Nobody Really Cares,’ ” one reactor operator said.
Yet Byron — owned by Exelon, America’s leading nuclear utility — has consistently received the highest safety rating given by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the industry oversight group whose evaluations make or break managers’ careers.
INPO doesn’t publish its ratings, but plant personnel contend that Byron’s INPO 1 streak is the longest in the nation. “You hear ‘flagship,’ a lot,” one source said. “You hear ‘world’s safest.’ ” Those words are a comfort to the 3,753 residents of rural Byron, who depend on the plant for continued economic vitality. In an otherwise depressed region, Byron is conspicuously prosperous, and bitter battles with Exelon over tax assessments have reminded residents of the grim economic reality that might otherwise await them. As in Fukui and Fukushima prefectures — which, like Illinois, host a disproportionate number of their nation’s nuclear power stations — local taboos tend to keep public discussion of the plant’s troubles to a minimum.
Byron’s safety record has made it an ideal petri dish for the cultivation of future corporate leaders. Many of Byron’s longtime reactor operators allege that these leadership candidates bring with them a willingness to exploit the plant and its workers for their own short-term benefit, imbuing Byron with a uniquely dysfunctional safety culture that epitomizes the nuclear industry’s broader vulnerability to profit-driven opportunism.
“It’s probably about 5 acres out there — the part where the shit happens,” one operator said. “Per square inch, those 5 acres produce more misery than any other five in the world, at least as far as nuke plants go.”
In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, many of Byron’s operators have bristled at the notion that that disaster bore a uniquely Japanese cultural imprint.
“A lot has been made of the ‘cultural element’ of what precipitated the accident at Fukushima,” said one Byron reactor operator. “Even in that official [Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission] report. And that provides an excuse for American nuke companies: ‘Oh, that was a Japanese problem.’ But Byron is the poster child for that type of cultural failure. Ask Barry Quigley.”
On July 18, 2012, Quigley, a former operator who now works in Byron Station’s engineering department, attended the NRC’s annual assessment meeting — where regulators offer their evaluation of the plant’s performance to the public — at Byron. Foremost, he was there to demand answers about Byron Station’s HELB (High Energy Line Break) vulnerabilities.
Simply put, there are two large holes in the wall of the plant’s turbine building that shouldn’t be there. They increase the likelihood that in an incident where high-energy piping breaks and releases a torrent of steam, that steam could travel through the openings and cause damage to a number of safety-significant systems, or even a loss of operability to all safety-related equipment. Byron’s diesel generators are especially vulnerable. Several HELB incidents have occurred at other nuclear plants. “It’s Fukushima-level stupid,” explained one reactor operator. “It’s a design mistake much like the misplacement of the diesel generators at Fukushima. But it would be astronomically expensive to fix. So: fat chance.”
The so-called fat chance, however, has been Quigley’s specialty for almost two decades. The term whistle-blower would suit him better if he wasn’t still employed — safety crusades notwithstanding — by Exelon. In 2003 he was nearly terminated, but was eventually returned to work and was even allowed to cherry-pick his new position. Barry first identified Byron’s HELB vulnerability in 1991, but it wasn’t until April 2012 that he filed a petition under NRC rules to have the plant forced into shutdown until the issue could be addressed.
Quigley feels that the subsequent regulatory process has lacked zeal and thoroughness. NRC documents indicate that — a month after Quigley had filed his petition — Bill Ruland, who was then chairman of the Petition Review Board evaluating Quigley’s concerns, had failed to read the internal Exelon document on which the petition hinged, or to realize that Quigley himself had authored the document — none of which stopped Ruland or the board from using the very same document as the technical basis for denying Quigley’s shutdown request. NRC records also indicate that Bartlett hoped the installation of a redundant piece of safety equipment would help address the problem. But Bartlett appeared unaware that installation of the same equipment at Braidwood, Byron’s sister plant, failed when the equipment blew apart “like a cheap children’s toy” immediately after it was installed, according to Braidwood personnel.
The annual assessment meeting was no more productive. In response to Quigley’s HELB concerns, NRC representative Kenneth O’Brien patiently explained what “defense in depth” means. A bedrock nuclear design principle, defense in depth calls for nuclear plants to maintain multiple tiers of fail-safe safety systems. Or, as O’Brien put it to nuclear engineer Quigley: It’s like wearing suspenders and a belt at the same time — it’s all right if the belt comes undone; you’ve still got your suspenders on.
“No, it’s not hard to believe they’d condescend me,” Quigley later said. “And it’s not important. It’s harder to believe they wouldn’t catch the problem — the HELB problem. That’s what matters.”
Quigley is no stranger to the difficulties of forcing the NRC’s gears into motion, and he has achieved relative success in the past. A Quigley petition in 1999 resulted in fatigue rules for nuclear workers. “The amount of time Barry spent, the amount of money he took out of his own pocket to win that fight — it’s astounding,” said one of the plant’s operators. “He did it because — and I think this was always Barry’s greatest fear — he didn’t want to see anyone get worked to death. Barry must have felt . . . well, I don’t know what he felt when Paul Busser died. ‘Too little, too late,’ I guess.”
At daughter Kayla’s concert in early 2008, Karen Busser touched her husband, Paul, on the back and felt how his favorite coat hung on his bones. The year had been difficult — at work, anyway. Paul was an NSO, and NSOs do shift work. Their schedules are like those of police officers or firefighters: several days (and/or nights) on, a few days off. Twelve-hour shifts. Most operators struggle with shift work — reactor operators present at relevant meetings say that internal studies concerning Byron’s inability to retain its operators have concluded that shift work is the single largest contributor.
But Paul was among the more senior NSOs and had wrangled a day job. This lasted until several other NSOs had alcohol trouble and had to go off-shift. One landed in Paul’s day job, sending Paul back to shift work.
It was a bad time to go back. A number of management decisions had left NSO staffing chronically depleted, and the operators’ labor union had little recourse — what few actions they could take were being relegated to a contractual gray area.
Paul held it together until the holidays, when operator vacation time is at its highest and the shift work schedule descends into chaos. By January, Paul was exhibiting persistent flulike symptoms. He started to drop weight, eventually losing almost 40 pounds (18 kg). He hung cardboard in his windows at home to keep the sunlight out. He migrated from couches to beds in search of sleep, but very little came.
This went on for three months before Paul hanged himself in the shed behind his boyhood home.
After Paul’s death, Karen filed a worker’s compensation lawsuit. The suit alleges that Paul’s onerous and unpredictable work schedule led to a sleep disorder, which produced the mental disturbance that killed him. Litigation is ongoing.
This investigation uncovered a number of serious mischaracterizations, withholdings and equivocations in Exelon’s defense of the Busser case. Through its expert medical witness, Exelon states that Paul made no attempt to complain to management about his schedule burden. But this investigation verified that on at least two separate occasions Paul indicated to his supervisors that he felt unable to continue shift work.
Exelon claims that an analysis of Paul’s schedules demonstrates that his shift work was not especially onerous. But this investigation determined that Paul’s schedule was in fact extremely onerous, and that Exelon’s analysis was produced in a statistically manipulative and misleading manner; further, Exelon’s analysis is based on incomplete and inaccurate scheduling documents.
Exelon also claims that Paul exhibited no signs of stress in the workplace, and that any such signs should have been reported to the NRC immediately, per legal requirements. But this investigation discovered that, on a night shift shortly before he took his own life, Paul was seen pacing the hallways near his old office, muttering to himself incomprehensibly. A radiation technician spotted Paul but didn’t report the incident. Approached during the course of this investigation, the radiation technician — who had previously described the incident to colleagues — claimed not to remember whether he had seen Paul acting strangely that night. Colleagues explained that this technician’s failure to report such an incident would render him vulnerable to firing and to regulatory consequences.In fact, this investigation discovered that aberrant behavior by licensed personnel at Byron Station goes chronically underreported. In one instance, the plant was even forced to reinstate its most erratic operator after terminating him because management had failed to adequately document numerous examples of his aberrant behaviors, including several instances of physical violence while on duty. Further, management rebuffed NSO attempts to procure substantive behavioral observation training for the majority of operators.
In their defense of the Busser case, Exelon also points to their Employee Assistance Program and maintains that reactor operators are empowered to seek psychological or psychiatric assistance. But an upper manager at Byron — Scott Fruin — once confided to a loved one what operators had long alleged: Marriage counseling is the only form of assistance considered acceptable, and attempts to seek psychotherapy or medication are often considered convenient excuses to line troublesome employees up for termination. Said another informed source: “When I saw what it cost them to fire someone that way [a few hundred dollars at that time] with a psych eval, I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s the cheapest way to fire someone I’ve ever seen.’ It’s brilliant, really. But also terrible.”
Operators also claim that the stressful nature (and scheduling) of their work renders them uniquely prone to developing mental illnesses, a contention supported by available medical literature. A significant number of operators have entertained suicidal thoughts, often due to workplace stress, and often during their shifts, while they were operating Byron’s nuclear reactors. Many of these operators have avoided seeking help, fearing it could get them fired.
The manner in which Exelon’s legal team gathered information from Paul Busser’s coworkers is also troubling: Plant employees were not informed that they were being asked to participate in litigation or that by providing information they were committing to testify against Paul’s widow in court. At least two of the three who provided information feel their statements have been misconstrued by Exelon. Upon seeing the manner in which the provided information had been used in expert testimony, one of Exelon’s witnesses disavowed the relevant statements. Approached during the course of this investigation, another witness insisted that he possessed no information whatsoever that could possibly be relevant to the Busser case.
But Busser’s death is only one among a handful that raise serious questions about Byron’s management culture. Operator Mike Childers was supervising a trainee when she made a minor mistake in the control room. No harm done, but paperwork associated with the mistake went missing. Management blamed Childers. He was allegedly exposed to extensive retaliation (punitive scheduling, verbal abuse, physical intimidation). Childers grew so desperate that he resorted to crawling through a plant Dumpster to search for the documents. One fellow operator recalled Childers bursting into tears when asked if he needed help easing the retaliatory scheduling burden he’d been exposed to.
As it turned out, the trainee had accidentally taken the paperwork home. Shortly thereafter, Childers experienced a headache while at work and died of a sudden aneurysm. Childers’ colleagues feel strongly that his mistreatment may have played a role in his death.
Sometime around December 2008, Scott Fruin was Byron’s shift operations supervisor, the operations department’s second highest position, when a reactor operator with a history of nodding off on the job fell asleep in the plant’s Work Control Center. A handful of equipment operators called on Fruin to force the issue, and it was escalated to Exelon’s corporate offices. Corporate sent representatives to conduct interviews at the plant. Exelon confirmed its legal department investigated an incident matching this description, but claimed the investigation was inconclusive and declined to provide details.
Sources claim Fruin was subsequently singled out for scapegoating. Fruin’s boss, Operations Director Cheryl Gayheart, whose department was besieged by a litany of deteriorating performance indicators, appeared to escape any consequences related to the incident. A wide range of individuals who had worked with Gayheart identified her management style — which they allege was ineffective and retaliatory — as the cause of her department’s deteriorating performance and allege that she had frequently targeted Fruin in order to protect herself.
Sometime after the incident, Fruin accepted a demotion. Later in 2009, rumors began to circulate that Fruin had spoken with NRC officials about the sleeping operator. In the early hours of Sept. 10, he shot himself. He left a suicide note written on a notepad obtained in Lisle, Illinois, where the Midwestern NRC regional office is located, and where he’d been that day. At Fruin’s funeral, Byron’s plant manager, Brad Adams — along with Byron’s human resources manager — aggressively questioned Fruin’s loved ones about whether he had made any mention of work-related matters in the days and weeks leading up to his death.
A high-ranking NRC source claims that the incident that led to Fruin’s demotion was never referred for investigation within the agency. This source also insists that any possibility of a licensed reactor operator falling asleep at work should occasion such a referral. Furthermore, this investigation could locate no record that any NRC personnel reviewed the incident, despite the fact that NRC staff, including Bruce Bartlett, were aware of it. Additional records searches performed by Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear and Michael Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan also failed to locate relevant records. Contacted by The Japan Times, the NRC would neither confirm nor deny any information related to Fruin or to the incident for which he was allegedly scapegoated.
Additionally, this investigation uncovered evidence that chronic staffing issues at the Work Control Center — where ongoing work throughout the plant is assigned and monitored — had contributed to major operating mistakes and safety problems for at least a decade, and that operators’ repeated attempts to bring the issue to management’s attention during that time frame had been ignored or met with hostility.
When Fruin first learned about the operator falling asleep on the job, he pushed for the operator’s termination. Today, that operator continues to work at Byron Station, running its nuclear reactors.
In March 2008, Larry Lawson was the NSO tasked with running a test of an auxiliary feedwater pump. It had been a victim of Byron’s chronic maintenance problems for several months. It had a tendency to emit smoke — even catch fire. Worse, it was located in a room with a carbon dioxide fire suppression system and to test it someone would have to be sent into the room to observe it during testing. A lack of caution could get that person asphyxiated.
Despite having proclaimed his intent to err on the side of safety, Lawson found himself faced — as the pump began spewing smoke — with a supervisor who refused to shut it down. The pump then burst into flames. Lawson’s supervisor still wouldn’t take it offline. Fed up, the other NSO on the unit turned the pump off. Dave Hoots, who had been monitoring the test via radio, sprinted into the control room and began pressuring Ed Bendis to find a way to pronounce the burning pump operable, lest its failure produce unflattering indicators.
Afterward, Bendis hauled Lawson into a meeting wherein Stephen Kuczysnki — then Exelon’s senior vice president for Midwest operations, now the CEO of Southern Nuclear Operating Co. — telephoned to berate a handful of employees: Did they realize how it made Kuczynski look when that pump was only operational X percent of the time? Did Lawson understand what that did to Kuczynski’s indicators?
Lawson marveled at Kuczynski’s indifference to how close they’d come to ending a man’s life. And Kuczynski, who held a number of upper management positions at Byron before ascending into Exelon’s corporate leadership, also happened to be the manager who operators felt had done more than anyone — both individually and on a policy level — to create the plantwide repair morass Lawson had to contend with on a daily basis.
“I almost quit on that one,” Lawson said of the feedwater pump incident. “Steve (Kuczynski) pulled that kind of stuff. He wasn’t the only one.”
This investigation discovered that a handful of senior managers at Byron consistently compromised safety to expedite work. Fearing a possible indicator, Hoots once tried to send an operator into the plant’s high-voltage switchyard during a severe lightning storm to make a minor repair. Kuczynski pressured employees into transporting irradiated equipment unsafely. At least one critical safety system was modified without legally required NRC consent. Key monitoring responsibilities — including airborne hydrogen levels and the use of primary water — were neglected.
In all of these cases, plant personnel made attempts to warn management about the safety issues these lapses created, and were largely ignored. If and when the lapses created incidents, the same managers often deflected blame by denying their actual involvement in related decision-making and by targeting lower-level employees for scapegoating.
In more than one case, this scapegoating led to dismissal. “At Byron, if you’re protected, you’re Teflon,” one reactor operator said. “If you’re not protected, you’re a sacrificial lamb.”
Management’s cavalier attitude toward safety resulted in a 2007 incident in which an essential service-water pipe blew open while it was being cleaned, prompting the shutdown of Byron’s two reactors for 12 days. Later, in 2011, a review of this shutdown caused prominent nuclear critic David Lochbaum to proclaim, “The only difference between Byron and Fukushima is luck.” More than anyone else, blame for the incident lay with the plant’s former engineering director, Brad Adams, who had coerced the engineer in charge of essential service-water into changing the system’s indicators — from red to green, according to one Byron engineer with firsthand knowledge of the indicators — so that Adams could avoid allocating further resources to the system. Byron personnel were flabbergasted when Adams — who had been sent to another Exelon plant in the meantime — was brought back to Byron and promoted to plant manager shortly after the incident.
The NRC bungled its oversight of the service-water issue so badly that the Inspector General official responsible for reviewing it went public in 2011 and Byron wound up in The New York Times. Bruce Bartlett escaped publicity by the narrowest margin: the whistle-blower, whose report heaped blame on Bartlett, didn’t give names for fear it would allow the NRC to reduce a systemic failure to an issue of personal misconduct. Neither did Adams have to face the music; Hoots came up with an alternate — and barely plausible, operators say — explanation blaming first-line supervisors for not pressing upper management hard enough on maintenance issues. When this explanation was floated at a Nuclear Safety Review Board meeting following the incident, with much of Exelon’s top brass in attendance, Barry Quigley vigorously attacked its credibility, thereby embroiling himself in an extended public debate with one of Exelon’s top executives. Plant personnel were shocked when Hoots’ explanation was adopted by INPO in their 2008 report, which again awarded Byron the industry’s highest safety rating.
The lack of regard for safety also affected working conditions for reactor operators. Several patterns of illness arose. At one time, three NSOs — all of whom had worked on the same shift — were diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease whose causes are still not clearly understood. The third operator to be afflicted was nearly crippled.
This investigation revealed several potential workplace health hazards: Equipment meant to control the humidity of the control room was often broken or operating at partial capacity; testing of the ventilation system using a highly toxic plasticizer resulted in a number of health complaints from operators; a source with firsthand knowledge of related documents indicated that the control room at Byron was — for quite some time — accidentally treated with a toxic cocktail of incompatible cleaning chemicals (Exelon denied this allegation); and, even now, Byron’s ventilation system regularly ejects clouds of fine, black specks into the control room. Many employees believe the specks are black mold. Operators have protested but say they’ve never received any indication that Exelon has looked into the matter. Exelon denied the existence of these black specks.
The plant’s health workers and human resources officers have also engaged in the manipulation of employee health benefits.
This investigation uncovered indications that Exelon has worked with Dr. John Koehler, who owns of a number of urgent care clinics in the Midwest and has been employed by Exelon in an occupational health services capacity, to minimize the number of diagnoses and prescriptions issued to Byron workers that would trigger reporting to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Exelon denied any inappropriate relationship with health care professionals). Exelon often tells its workers that their visits to Koehler’s clinics are “for evaluation, not treatment,” but several workers have nonetheless complained about inadequate and suspicious evaluations. Employee attempts to relay these concerns to the plant management and its human resources department have been met with indifference. Byron managers have also attempted to deprive their employees of worker’s compensation, and — as recently as January — to use worker disability as a basis for termination.
The individual stories beggar belief: One employee on the brink of organ failure was ordered to stop taking medicine and report to work. Hoots forced another employee — who had already been coerced out of applying for disability — into physically strenuous fire-brigade training. Hoots did so despite knowing that the training would aggravate the employee’s disability. And it did. That employee was fired just short of his 50th birthday, denying him access to his pension and the more generous severance package he would have received if Exelon had let him work a little longer. He was fired for missing too much work — work he missed as a result of the disability Byron management had discouraged him from documenting.
This same employee later suffered a massive stroke. His doctors determined there was a distinct possibility he had suffered small strokes over the preceding years, and they wanted to know: Why hadn’t he take time off from work to have his symptoms investigated?
Sources claim that Hoots’ ability to launch himself into Exelon management’s upper echelons depended on his busting the union at Byron. Hoots focused on union steward Dan Cork, the operators’ strongest advocate. As early as 2000, Hoots was telling his subordinates that Cork’s removal was top priority. He began referring to Cork as “the head of the snake.”
The ensuing campaign against the union found special expression in actions taken specifically (and solely) against Cork: Management employees were assigned to track Cork as he traveled the plant on union business, Cork’s email and computer usage were monitored, and Hoots went well out of his way to make Cork repeat Initial License Training in the hopes that Cork would flunk.
Retaliation against the union was most tangible in the deterioration of the union grievance process, which is the primary mechanism by which members can seek redress for contract violations and other mistreatment. Sources say Byron’s grievance backlog was among the worst in Exelon’s 10-plant fleet. Grievances originating from Byron were unusually likely to require lengthy mediation or litigation. This investigation also discovered that management employed a number of foot-dragging techniques in order to delay and neutralize union grievances. Paul Busser considered filing a grievance about his schedule, but decided against it — the process was broken and would expose him to retaliation.
And retaliation had been known to take bizarre forms: Stephen Stimac, an upper manager linked to several alleged instances of retaliation against safety-conscious work activity, had spearheaded a management effort to eliminate a favorite menu choice from the union operators’ compensated meal options. As the effort sputtered, Stimac could often be seen berating union members. “I don’t owe you a f—-ing steak,” he’d yell. One operator recalls Stimac nearly getting physical.
“That’s how much operator morale was worth to management: less than a steak. In Exelon terms, less than a fraction of a penny,” a management source said.
Another upper manager had gone ballistic when a janitor discovered a bottle full of urine and reported it to management. He stormed into various rooms at the plant — including the control room — and demanded that union operators raise their right hands and swear before God to help find the culprit. Never mind that the operators had been complaining that management wasn’t providing adequate bathroom breaks — hence the bottle method — for years. “In any other workplace, that kind of thing might be funny,” said one operator. “But in a control room it’s reckless. Management was making threats, causing resentment, creating distraction.”
Many of Byron’s operators also contend that their union has been ineffective at Byron since Cork retired. They say the union has often been unable to provide its members with adequate protection from abuse and retaliation, or to effectively enable them to advocate for safety-conscious conduct at the plant.
Several of Byron’s most senior union operators specifically questioned current union head Dean Apple’s leadership, which has included a broken promise Apple made to Karen Busser to supply her with documents that would shed light on her husband’s death. Said one union source, “Karen — and her situation — is nobody to the union.”
Asked if Byron’s safety culture and work conditions demonstrate any long-term tendency toward improvement, one operator said, “It can seem like things are getting better. But then you realize you’ve just gotten used to it being so bad. Basically, we’re circling the drain, and as long as we don’t go in, no one cares how close we get.”
A number of sources pointed to a particular phrase often used by a former reactor operator to describe the options available to Byron employees: adapt, migrate or die.
In October 2012, Larry Lawson filed an Incident Report at the plant. In it, he catalogued the chronic staffing issues facing Byron and described the toll that short-staffing has taken on NSOs. “Since I cannot force you to provide better health coverage, or increase the number of NSOs,” Lawson wrote, “. . . I will do the one thing that I do have control over. I quit.”
In January, Barry Quigley discovered that — per NRC request — Exelon had run a new batch of tests on Byron’s HELB vulnerability using the more accurate mathematical modeling system he had championed in his petition. The results were damning and Exelon had hidden them from regulators. Quigley has reported the coverup to the NRC. The NRC has yet to take substantive action.
Decades of mostly thankless safety work have left Quigley weary. “It is debilitating. It is exhausting,” he admitted. He isn’t certain if HELB is his final campaign as Byron’s resident safety sentinel. Headway at Exelon — with its “culture of hiding problems” — seems to be in short supply. But he nonetheless does enjoy other aspects of his job at Byron, and is certain he’ll keep doing nuclear safety work somewhere. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire,” he said, noting that he has considered applying for a job at the NRC.
In February, Byron Station was notified that it had been rated INPO 2, bringing an end to its long streak of high safety ratings. A month beforehand, sources familiar with the ratings process provided this investigation with the forthcoming rating, the date it would be issued, and the rationale that would be used. Sources also speculated that Byron Site Vice President Tim Tulon, recognized by plant employees as a comparatively effective and humane executive, would be transferred, despite the fact that the safety issues underlying the rating had been created by previous management regimes.
Tulon was transferred shortly after Byron received its INPO 2 rating.
“INPO 1 means the wrong people get promoted. INPO 2 means the wrong heads roll. That’s it. Politics. Theater,” one reactor operator said. “None of the people responsible for the broken safety culture at Byron will face any blame for it. They’ve moved on, moved up. They took the money and ran.”
Since engaging in activities harmful to morale, working conditions and safety culture at Byron Station, Dave Hoots, Cheryl Gayheart, Stephen Kuczynski, Stephen Stimac and Brad Adams have all received promotions, either within Exelon or at another utility, Alabama-based Southern Nuclear.
Akira Yoshikawa contributed reporting to this article. Because a number of sources were threatened during the course of this investigation, most have been allowed to remain anonymous. Steps have been taken to protect their identities. Send comments on these issues to firstname.lastname@example.org