Do nuclear safety regulations ensure that trustworthy and reliable people have unescorted access to nuclear power facilities

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Nuclear Reactor Controls

To work at a nuclear facility in the United States, a worker must be trustworthy and reliable in the eyes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the licensee.  The problem is that no definition of trustworthy and reliable can be easily found.

The lack of definition has allowed questionable interpretation and use of 10 CFR 73.56 (c), which says that licensees must provide high assurance that individuals granted unescorted access to nuclear power plants, like licensed reactor operators, are trustworthy and reliable.

It is the sole responsibility of the licensee to fulfill this requirement.  While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission monitors the licensee’s processes and procedures which assure compliance with the regulations, they do not oversee the fulfillment of the requirement of each individual person given unescorted access to nuclear facilities.

When it comes to working in the nuclear industry, honesty is the best policy in any situation related to one’s criminal history or memberships with various organizations.  The logic is that if you cannot be honest about your history and affiliations, then you cannot be trusted, and security clearances can be revoked just for lying.

Some workers have found however, that honesty is not always the best policy in keeping a job.

Trusting employees who self report

Prescription medication is not an easy thing to regulate in the nuclear industry.  Many prescriptions have a wide variety of side effects, and it is difficult to pre-determine how they will affect each individual who takes them.

A worker at a nuclear power plant in the Midwest was taking prescription medication when he became involved in a very minor incident at the nuclear facility he worked at.  One of the contributing causes of the event was a missed step in a sequence of procedures the worker was conducting.

The event in question was so minimal, that it did not even require notification of the NRC – however, the worker was dissatisfied with his own performance.

Shortly thereafter, the worker met with his doctor again, and asked if a recent change in his prescribed medication may have adversely affected his attention to detail.  The doctor agreed that this was a possibility, but no conclusions could be made after the fact.

Armed with this information, the employee self-reported the news to his supervisor, in an attempt to be trustworthy and reliable.

The licensee responded by removing the worker from his position and demoting him to a lesser one.

The licensee specifically quoted 10 CFR Part 26 which requires workers to be trustworthy and reliable in defense of their actions.  They said that the employee failed to proactively inform his supervisor about the change in prescribed medication, and that had rendered him non-trustworthy and unreliable.

The employee was confused and concerned.  The licensee had failed to take action against him like this in the wake of the incident, only after he had consulted his doctor and self-reported a potential contributing cause.  There were no regulations from the NRC or company policies which required him to disclose a change in doctor prescribed medications, nor had he been required to consult with his physician regarding the possibility that the prescription change factored into the incident.  It appeared that had he not consulted his physician on his own accord, and left the matter alone, that he would have been able to continue his work in his previous position with no problem.

For doing more than was required — displaying traits consistent with trustworthy and reliable individuals — the worker was demoted for being non-trustworthy and unreliable. The worker noted that “trustworthy” and “reliable” is not defined within 10 CFR Part 26 or any NRC guidance document, making it hard for workers to understand the expectations and very easy for subjective determinations of what is and is not trustworthy, reliable behavior.

The Thomas King Affair

Thomas King was a Field Service Engineer who worked in the nuclear industry, for nearly 30 years, at over 30 installations.

In 2011, while working at the St. Lucie nuclear power plant, King was approached and asked to sign a falsified nuclear training record which he never attended, as he had not even been employed by the contractor on the dates of the training.  He refused to sign the document, and took the matter to the licensee, worried that the contractor had attempted to get other contract workers to sign falsified training documents.

Unfortunately, at the time of King’s concerns, the licensee was preparing for a large and expensive refueling outage, if the contractor was found to be unfit for work due to lack of training, it could take over a month to find another contractor able to do the work, and each reactor costs the licensee about $1 million per day it is shut down.

King was subsequently dismissed and has been unable to find work since.  He filed a complaint with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who after two years released a 2,800 page report on the investigation, which claimed that the problem was just clerical errors.

The Arch-Dragon Reactor Operator

Robert E Schloneger

While it may be easy to agree that hatred and violence have no place at licensed nuclear facilities in the United States, most readers would be surprised to learn that regulations have no ability to prevent members of extremist organizations from becoming licensed reactor operators.

In context, being a member of an extremist or radical organization does not make one untrustworthy or unreliable in the eyes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  In fact, not even a criminal conviction on record prevents one from obtaining access authorization to a nuclear power plant. There are no specific criminal offenses that are disqualifying.

Federal laws prohibit discrimination based on a person’s national origin, race, color, religion, disability, sex, and familial status.  Simply, this means that people cannot be denied equal opportunity just because they are associated with certain groups, even if they are extremist or radical in nature – promote violence and hatred, etc.

This was first brought to public light in the 1980s, when it was learned that Robert E. Schlonegar, a licensed reactor operator at the Zion nuclear power plant north of Chicago, had also founded his own Ku Klux Klan Klavern – the Order of the Fiery Cross.

This situation was discovered by a reported for the Herald newspapers in Chicago, Illinois.  Neither the licensee, nor the NRC, admitted being knowledgeable of the issues related to Robert Schlonegar prior to the publication of the investigative journalism piece.

The journalist began his story at a KKK rally, where several small children under the age of 10 were being inducted into the clan.  Schloneger was one of the leaders of the event and joked with the undercover reported that “Not even God wanted to rain on Hitler’s parade.”

In the story, Schloneger is reported to have been a follower of William Luther Pierce, an American physicist and one of the most prominent neo-Nazis in the United States.  Pierce had written The Turner Diaries, a book about a future race ware in the United States which includes detailed descriptions of mass hangings, and later famously was alleged to have influenced Timothy McVeigh to perpetrate the Oklahoma City bombing.  It was Pierce who loathed the civil rights movement and Anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, thinking them Jewish-led, communist-inspired, a threat to real Americans, and who wanted to bring about a white nationalist revolution in the United States.

Arch Dragon Schloneger was a self proclaimed terrorist, who spoke out against law and order in favor of chaos.  Though it is not know if Schloneger made his allegiance known at the time he was hired by Edison in 1971, the outspoken nature of his membership during the end of his employment was what saved his job.

As long as Schloneger did not bring his radical views to the workplace, or allow them to affect his job in any way, his bosses at COMED and the NRC had their hands tied.  Even though they may not sanction organizations like the KKK, they could not also discriminate against them, unless someone could prove that the group intended to harm nuclear power facilities.

The NRC however did not even feel the need to punish, fire, or remove unescorted access to the nuclear power plant from Schloneger after he told a reporter that his fantasy was to walk into a Jewish hospital with a flame-thrower and hose down every room, when it was discovered that he was amassing more than 300 pounds of ammunition and guns at a farm in Wisconsin, after he referred to a black mail man as an “ape”, or after it was discovered that he carried a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber special handgun in the glove box of his car and had “been tempted to plug a couple of real assholes out (driving) on the road”, until his better judgment got the best of him.

A week after the initial article was published by the Herald, another article was published by the Waukegan News titled “Edison values alleged KKK leader.”  The article documented that Schloneger was rated highly as an employee by Commonwealth Edison, the utility which operated the Zion nuclear power plant in Illinois.  “He is an above-average control room operator,” said James Toscas, the spokesman for Edison.

Schloneger’s affiliation with the KKK was discovered four years prior to the publication of the first article in the Herald.  At that time, Schloneger said that the FBI raided his home and questioned him, before he was allowed to return to work.  One of the conditions of his being able to resume work was his promise not to share his beliefs at the plant and not to mention the plant’s name in interviews with the press.

His employment at the Zion nuclear power plant did not last long after the articles.  On December 1st, just a few short weeks after the initial reporting, Schloneger was forced to resign in part due to his Klan activities.  As the story goes, Edison was “reassessing his status as an employee” in light of the news articles which had been published about him.  Specifically, Edison was attempting “to ascertain whether he was abiding by the agreement he and the company had that he would not conduct any activities or attempt to sell any of his philosophies inside of the plant itself.”

In the end, it appears that despite the agreement made between the licensee and Schloneger, they were unable to prevent him from at least discussing his beliefs on-site.  Which makes one question whether or not the regulations we have in place are really effective at preventing problems, or just allow us to react to violations, not proactively circumvent them.

Nuclear power facilities are a part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.  They also are the front lines of the fight between national security and civil rights.  Since no one is forced to work there, it is not outside the realms of expectation that some civil liberties may need to be given up to ensure protection of the public health and welfare.  But this has not happened as of yet, in fact the NRC has tried to stay away from individual beliefs, questionable affiliations, etc.

One of the more prophetic parts of the articles quoted a pamphlet marked “internal circulation only” which was being circulated by Schloneger which read, “It may be prudent for us to contemplate the use of deception rather than force.”  While the pamphlet was pointing out the telltale signs of a societal breakdown and rendezvous plans for members of the KKK klavern, the same approach may be just as useful to a potential terrorist at a nuclear facility.  The instructions continued to direct members to disguise themselves as police or personnel, service or road workers, even as priests, in order to help facility their movements.  The KKK even understood that they didn’t need to necessarily use a direct force approach, that deception could be a more useful tool.

In fact, it is not outside the realms of belief to think that members of extremist organizations could infiltrate nuclear power facilities at any time, if the proper precautions are not taken to ensure that all employees are trustworthy and reliable.  Therefore, it would seem judicious to know all affiliations and allegiances of workers, especially ones with unescorted access to nuclear power facilities, in order to prevent any scenario where said infiltration could occur undetected.

I contacted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Office of Public Affairs, and submitted questions through Scott Burnell to the NRC staff.

I was surprised to learn that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never conducted any survey of the organizations that licensed reactor operators are members of.  Perhaps I should not have been, considering that the NRC also does not keep track of the number of foreign citizens working at nuclear power plants.  In fact, owners of reactor facilities are not even required to limit the access of foreigners.

There have been a lot of troubling reports recently about the nuclear workforce.  It has been shown that reported drug and alcohol violations at nuclear power plants are on the increase.

Our recent coverage of the Michael Buhrman and Landon Brittain case even show how two criminals attempted to recruit other workers at a nuclear power plant in Illinois to join their nefarious activities.

The question which should be asked at the end of this investigation is, are the current regulations in place effectively ensuring that employees are trustworthy and reliable?  I think the answer must be no, at least until we can determine for once and for all what trustworthy and reliable really are.

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