What oversight exists at the nuclear plant nearest you? On today's podcast Arnie, Lucas and Nat discuss the NRC's Fitness for Duty program for nuclear reactor operators, in which workers are periodically tested for mental health issues and on-the-job usage of drugs and alcohol. Fairewinds recently authored a report on the many industry-wide instances of nuclear plant operators coming to work under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Listen to our podcast and read our report to find out what areas of the country are experiencing the most violations, what is the nuclear plant operator’s drug of choice, and whether rates of drug and alcohol abuse have gone up or down in the past five years (hint: they’ve gone up).
In the News
Report details drug and alcohol violations at U.S. nuclear plants By Ivan Penn, Tampa Bay Times
NWJ: Welcome to the Fairewinds Energy Education Podcast for Thursday, September 19. Today we’re talking with Lucas Hixson and Arnie Gundersen about Fairewinds’ most recently released report on Fitness For Duty (FFD). So we’re going to start out this conversation by talking about what Fitness For Duty actually means.
AG: Fairewinds has been working on a report about Fitness For Duty for several months now. The events at the Navy Yard in Washington DC this week sort of drive home the question of what does it really mean to be fit for duty. In nuclear jargon, it means that your behavior is not deviant in some way. It means that you’re not using drugs or that your behavior is not abnormal and threatening to others. You don’t want your airline pilot to show up drunk, and you don’t want your nuclear reactor operator to be on drugs. That’s really the beginning of a Fitness For Duty program that’s mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When you sign up to work at a nuclear plant, you sign up for random drug testing, random alcohol testing. And at least once a year, you get lucky, win the lottery and get tested. But you can also get tested when you appear to have aberrant behavior; if you’re staggering as you walk down the hallway or you smell of booze, you can get tested. It’s not a random test. So when an employee fails this test or when a contractor fails this test, they report it to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in something called an ENR – an Event Notification Report. And these are published and they go back for years. So what Fairewinds decided to do was have our ace researcher, Lucas Hixson, go through the last five years of ENR’s and see what we could learn about just how fit nuclear reactor operators are when they’re running their nuclear reactor.
NWJ: Lucas, when you started to delve deeper into the research, what kind of trends started to emerge?
LH: Well, I think the first thing that we discovered was that there is a definite increase in the trends reported Fitness For Duty events. In this five-year window that we looked at, they more than doubled – almost 2-1/2 times what they were in 2008 and 2013. So I think that’s one of the first things that we noted.
AG: And that’s pretty darn serious. There used to be 15 Fitness For Duty violations a year – essentially one a month. And now we’re over 40 – essentially almost one a week. So something’s happening in these nuclear plants and the program hasn’t changed, but yet more people are getting caught, which means that more people might be using drugs and alcohol.
NWJ: So why do you think that is? Why are more people using drugs and alcohol?
LH: I don’t think it’s any one factor. I would more attribute it to a number of factors. But I think that’s why we want to do further analysis on the data. So there are some things that we can further extrapolate from this.
AG: The report’s available on the website. Table 1 in the report talks about the fact that alcohol and general Fitness For Duty issues have increased dramatically.
LH: If you go to graph 2, you’ll actually note that the number of reported violations that go through the NRC’s Event Notifications system is in fact only a small percentage of the total violation. And so to understand this, you really have to go back to the regulations. And what we find there is that licensees are only required to report what are deemed significant events. There are Fitness For Duty events which are deemed non-reportable, which means essentially they are assuming that people are going to violate the Fitness For Duty program at every nuclear power plant. And here in the second graph, we’ve got a random selection of five nuclear power plants. And we took their 2012 reported Fitness For Duty events and compared them to the number of total violations in the annual Fitness For Duty report they submitted. And we found, as I alluded, that there is a small number actually being captured and reported to the NRC through the Event Notification System when compared to the total number of violations. Following the Event Notification System is not always the most accurate way to track these events at nuclear power plants.
AG: Yeah, so let’s go back to slide 1 there. Slide 1 talks about the fact that we have almost tripled the number of Fitness For Duty reportable events. But in fact, if you go over to slide 2, there’s almost 5 to 7 times more that are unreported.
NWJ: You don’t want to think about these reactor operators at the wheel intoxicated.
AG: Yeah. And you would hope that when they were, it would show up reportable. But as slide 2 shows, they’re not reporting unless thresholds are met. You know what I found interesting was slide 3. What we did was we looked at the ten worst list and stacked them up. And a vast majority of the 10 worst nuclear reactors are in what we would call the Deep South. The NRC calls it Region 2. It’s Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida.
LH: Another thing that I found was interesting was the discrepancy of the choice among licensee employees and among contractors and vendors. And I’ve had a few discussions with people like Arnie and like Dave Lochbaum about what can we really see from this. But what we did for this one is we looked at the NRC’s annual Fitness For Duty Report, which collects the annual data submitted by the licensees and compiles it in a larger format report. And one of the things that we were able to pull from this is the fact that among licensee employees, over half of them are related to alcohol. But among contractors, there’s a much small number who are abusing alcohol in comparison with those who are abusing drugs. Like marijuana is one of the leading offenders. And this was a very large discrepancy.
AG: If you’re employed by the reactor operator, most of those people, when they win the lottery and get tested, are testing positive for alcohol – more than half. But if you’re a contractor, you’re just in for a specific job and you’re let go, more than half of those are testing positive for marijuana. It seems like the drug of choice for contractors is marijuana, which lingers in your blood longer; whereas the drug of choice if you’re an employee is some form of alcohol, which pretty much disappears from your blood within a day. So to catch an employee with alcohol in his sample basically means the relatively high alcohol consumption on the employee side of the people that run a nuclear power plant.
LH: When we say large discrepancy here, let me give you some actual numbers. About one out of every two Event for Duty reports – Fitness For Duty related reports are related to alcohol among licensee employees. Among contractors and vendors, that’s one in five. One in five positive tests among contractors and vendors are related to alcohol. Who are licensee employees, one in four events are related to marijuana. Among contractors and vendors, that’s one in two.
AG: So there really is two difficult cultures on site. There’s an alcohol culture and there’s a marijuana culture. And the table, which is Table #4 in the report, clearly shows a huge distinction. The other thing about that table is that there’s not a big distinction between cocaine. One is 10 percent; one is 12 percent. So essentially, cocaine use, whether you’re an employee or a contract, is about the same. The big difference is in marijuana versus booze.
LH: One of the other things that we noticed from these trends is that it’s not just showing up drunk to work. As Arnie alluded to earlier, there’s not many jobs that you can show up drunk to work or under the influence of drugs and still keep your job. And that’s the same in the nuclear industry. They generally faced very strict punishments for these offenses that can go from a couple of years suspension to permanent termination of employment and you’re pretty much blacklisted within the industry. It’s not just that people are breaking the Fitness For Duty program. It’s pretty much with intent. They are aware of the consequences of these actions and they’re also aware of this Fitness For Duty program, which is essentially a see-something, say-something program on steroids, where everyone is supposed to be keeping everyone else accountable for their actions and for their deeds and if they see something that doesn’t fit with their normal behavior, then it’s supposed to be reported. So even though they know that they’re going to be under close scrutiny, they’re still doing these things. And they’re not just showing up under the influence. They’re bringing the contraband to the plant. They’re bringing the alcohol, they’re bringing the drugs. And in some cases, it has been documented, with intent to distribute. You also have places – for examples, Braidwood stands out. They’ve had multiple violations where they are, after the fact, finding alcohol containers hidden above the ceiling. It’s not just one or two offenses, but a number of them.
AG: Talk about aberrant behavior, we’ve got a case of two Exelon reactor operators – one held a woman up at gunpoint and kidnapped her in her car. The other one didn’t tell the FBI the correct information, covering up for his buddy. Now that to me is certainly aberrant behavior. Yet there was no Fitness For Duty report filed for those guys. So in fact, these numbers if anything are low when you look at the aberrant behavior of nuclear employees.
LH: I’m going to go into a little more detail on this, too. So we’re talking about the Michael Buhrman, Landon Brittain case, both of whom were licensed reactor operators at the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant. Michael Buhrman, it came out through the course of testimony through his trial that he was attempting to recruit other workers at the nuclear power plant to commit crimes with him. And in the end, it appears that he did successfully attempt to recruit at least one other worker. They got a gun, they got masks, they went and Michael Burhman held a young woman up with a semi-automatic pistol in her face, hijacked her car and then was caught and told the police that it was just a thrill seeking thing. He was later put on trial. During the course of his trial, he had been given an ankle-monitoring bracelet and was under house arrest. He then cut off that monitoring bracelet, ran out on the lam, and has been missing ever since. It has been reported that he is in Venezuela. Later caught, Landon Brittain, his accomplish who is now in prison in Illinois and is awaiting trial for the same offenses. But as Arnie said, none of these events were reported through the Event Notification System. Not the fact that you had licensed operators who were attempted to collude to commit criminal acts while on duty; but also the fact that they actually carried out their plan. And so as Arnie said, that’s very concerning because these are definite aberrant behaviors that should not be happening on duty.
AG: You know, Lucas is right on the issue of – these guys at Dresden were talking to their fellow employees. At some point, the see-something, say-something, one would expect if the system really worked, that a fellow employee would turn these guys in. It didn’t happen. So if anything, the information in the Fairewinds report is under-projecting the Fitness For Duty problems at nuclear plants.
LH: And there’s one last finding I would like to add to this. And that is the fact that many of these reports that are coming in, especially ones related to licensed reactor operators, are actually coming from off-duty reports – people getting pulled over, driving under the influence. What I’m saying is it’s not actually happening because of the Fitness For Duty program. It’s actually being reported through the Fitness For Duty program. Which just like with the MLB steroids issue, there are more players using it than have been caught. We have to assume the same in this type of situation. There are more people at nuclear power plants that are using drugs and alcohol than are being reported through the Fitness For Duty Program. And so it really questions the efficiency of the program when you think about the fact that there are lots of outside reports, think about the fact that only a fraction of them are reported within a short amount of time; and when you also consider the fact that not many of these actual violations are being caught and reported, we really have to question whether or not it’s effective. Is it really changing the way that workers come to work every day? Do they view this as an effective program? Or is it just another process which can be evaded?
NWJ: Yeah, that’s a really good point, Lucas. And I think that the people living around these plants have to consider this. Because certainly this report, as most Fairewinds reports, is about public safety. The people living around these plants are not as safe as the NRC would like them to believe that they are.
AG: So we hope that people in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission slice and dice the data like we did. There’s a lot of conclusions. Why has the Fitness For Duty problems gone up threefold in five years? Why are most of Fitness For Duty issues not reported? Why are most of the problems in the Deep South, in region 2? And why is there that weird break between alcohol consumption of employees and the drug consumption of contractors?
LH: Fitness For Duty violations that are occurring are showing drug and alcohol dependencies among workers. But the Fitness For Duty Program is also supposed to catch mental deficiencies. For example, you have an employee that is thinking of acts of sabotage. It’s supposed to catch these types of aberrant behaviors before they happen. So now there’s also situations like with this Michael Buhrman case where it is not catching those. And if we’re not even catching the easy ones, the drug and alcohol-related offenses, how can we be assured of the fact that this program is capable of catching the other more serious yet less apparent type of violations that come along with intent and the actual operator actions?
AG: Well, I want to thank you Lucas, for slicing and dicing the data as well as you did. And I hope that our readers will take a look at it. And too, I hope our regulators take a look at it, and our representatives in government take a look at it. Because this is a situation which is getting worse, not better.
NWJ: Well, thank you both for being on with me today. This is clearly an issue that’s going to require a lot more attention.
LH: Thanks for having me.
AG: Yeah, thanks.