Workers at San Onofre Nuclear Plant Report Culture of Fear, Deep Mistrust

Edison, the utility that runs San Onofre, is in upheaval as it digests new evidence that many of its employees are working in an environment of fear.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station/Credit: exquisitur, flickr

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Story updated at 3 p.m. EDT, Oct. 4, 2012

The utility that runs California’s troubled San Onofre nuclear plant is in the midst of unprecedented upheaval as it works to rein in bloated management, address ethics issues and digest new evidence that many of its employees work in a “pressure-cooker” environment marked by overwork, distrust and fear of retaliation, according to documents obtained by InsideClimate News.

The internal documents—one report, one companywide survey and a series of management e-mails—reveal that in the last few months, electric utility Southern California Edison has quietly begun a restructuring that has thus far included the ouster or retirement of several top executives, the consolidation of ethics investigations within SCE’s corporate parent and the reorganization of several departments.

In addition to the unpublicized shakeup, the company recently announced it would reorganize management at its idled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) and cut more than 700 jobs, or about a third of the plant’s payroll. And last week, Edison told employees it would also trim 20 percent of the managers in the utility’s Information Technology group.   

The big changes at Edison, which operates SONGS and is its majority owner, come at a critical juncture in an ongoing debate about the safety, cost and necessity of restarting the nuclear plant’s two reactors. SONGS has been shut down since February because of fears that excessive wear inside its steam generators could trigger a radioactive leak.

Today, Edison is expected to submit a report to federal regulators describing the cause of the equipment problems and possibly proposing a plan for restarting one of the plant’s reactors.

(Editor’s note: On Oct. 4, Edison filed documents with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission outlining its conclusions about the cause of SONGS’ steam generator problems and proposing to restart one of the plant’s reactors, run it at 70 percent of capacity, then inspect it after five months. The NRC said it expects to spend several months analyzing Edison’s filing. The commission will host a public meeting in Southern California Oct. 9 to discuss SONGS developments.)

The fate of SONGS is a contentious issue for nearby cities as well as for the more than eight million residents who live within a 50-mile radius of the coastal plant. But it’s also one of the focal points in a national debate over the merits of nuclear energy—a debate that has grown more intense since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident, throwing into doubt a widely expected renaissance in U.S. nuclear power.  

According to the company’s most recent employee ethics and compliance survey, summarized in a June 2012 presentation obtained by InsideClimate News, only 39 percent of the utility’s workers agreed that Edison rewards people who follow its ethics and compliance standards. Only 54 percent said they could question management decisions without fear of retaliation. And 38 percent said Edison does not reward questionable actions, compared to 61 percent in a 2007 national survey that asked a similar question.

Karlene Roberts, an expert in workplace culture within high-risk industries and a professor at University of California Berkeley’s Haas business school, said this about those survey results: “Those numbers are bad … that company’s in trouble.”

Information in the workplace culture report and a companywide ethics survey also suggests that employees throughout the utility—including at SONGS—distrust their managers and fear retaliation if they raise ethical concerns or report misconduct.

The 23-page workplace culture report, dated May 15, was highly critical of the “unhealthy” and stress-filled work environment in the utility’s Information Technology and Business Integration organization, where two supervisors were killed and two others were wounded in a December 2011 shooting attack by an employee who killed himself afterward.

Experts from Incident Management Team, an independent workplace consultant, interviewed employees throughout Edison’s Information Technology organization, including workers based at SONGS, the Irwindale facility where the shooting occurred and several other locations. The IT department employs more than 1,800 employees—roughly 10 percent of SCE’s total payroll at the end of 2011.

The consultants concluded that Edison’s IT organization suffered from a “fundamental lack of leadership in many areas” that led to “loss of trust, lack of respect, fear of retaliation, inefficient decision-making processes, poor communication, lack of work/life balance, abusive management styles, lack of management accountability, perceived absence of fairness and a shortage of recognition.”

Roberts, a workplace culture expert, said the litany of woes cited by the Edison consultants is typical in situations where the review takes place after a catastrophe.

“That’s pretty standard,” Roberts said. “It’s standard because those are the things that go wrong.”

In a July 17 e-mail to corporate and utility employees, SCE President Ron Litzinger admitted that the company’s culture problems are widespread. Preliminary results from IMT assessments of the work culture elsewhere in the utility “suggests that similar key issues found in IT are also found throughout the broader company culture,” Litzinger said. “As you can imagine, these findings are extremely upsetting to all of us,” according to a copy of the e-mail provided to InsideClimate News.

The company said in a statement last week that it hired the consultants to provide a candid assessment, and that Edison has already implemented some of the report’s recommendations.

For San Onofre, Criticism Nothing New

SONGS critics have frequently questioned the safety culture at the nuclear plant, citing complaint data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, employee lawsuits and anecdotal evidence. And several complaints in the workplace culture report—especially those involving overwork, widespread distrust and fear of retaliation—echo problems known to have plagued SONGS for years.

Records from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission covering the last five years (2007-2011)  show that San Onofre racked up far more safety complaints from on-site workers and contractors than any other U.S. nuclear facility. SONGS had 143 complaints compared to second-highest Susquehanna’s 94 complaints and the nationwide average among non-SONGS facilities of 25. (see chart below, click to expand)

San Onofre also leads all other U.S. nuclear plants in employee allegations of harassment and retaliation over the same five-year period, with 39. Arizona’s three-reactor Palo Verde nuclear plant has the second-highest number of complaints, with 23, while the average among SONGS’ nuclear peers is six. (see chart below, click to expand)

In 2010, the NRC warned San Onofre managers that a compromised safety culture at the plant had produced a “chilling effect” that made employees too afraid of retaliation to tell managers about safety concerns or to report them through the company’s complaint hotline.

Following management and employee training sessions, and then new employee surveys, the NRC in September 2011declared San Onofre’s safety culture satisfactory. In its 2011 allegations report, the NRC listed SONGS as one of five nuclear sites that warranted extra review, but it concluded the complaint trends at the five facilities “do not suggest a concern about the environment for raising concerns.”

That opinion still holds today. SONGS made “significant improvements to the safety culture at the plant, and we do not see them having a safety culture problem at this time,” NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said.

When Edison announced the SONGS job cuts more than a month ago, the company said operating costs and staffing levels were “significantly higher” at SONGS compared to similar plants. The utility also noted that the steam generator problems will force at least one of the reactors to stay offline for the foreseeable future, providing further impetus for reducing the workforce.

What happens next depends on what Edison submits to federal regulators, especially if it suggests restarting one of the reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said it would take several months to review Edison’s submission before deciding whether SONGS can be safely restarted.