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.”
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.
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.”
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