Former Palisades workers claim retaliation for raising concerns

Jun 27, 2014

Former workers at the Palisades nuclear plant are accusing management of lying to regulators about attempts to fix a work environment where managers put a chill on critical feedback from employees. 

 The Palisades nuclear power plant near South Haven.
The Palisades nuclear power plant near South Haven.

Thursday night’s meeting to review Palisades' performance last year started out pretty typically.

Regulators noted a survey that found security officers fear retaliation if they raise certain concerns.

Company officials got a chance to respond. Otto Gustafson, Director of Regulatory and Performance Improvement at Palisades, said management is taking the concerns very seriously and outlined a plan to correct the problem. 

But then Chris Malich stepped to the microphone during the public comment portion of the meeting and called Gustafson and other officials out.

“I’ve seen it over and over,” Malich told regulators, “They’ve said things are going to change, things are going to change, and they stay the same.”

Malich says he worked security at Palisades from 2009 until he quit earlier this year.

Jessica Tenhagen followed Malich with more complaints. She worked at Palsisades since 2008. She believes she was fired last month because she continued to raise concerns about excessive overtime and a number of safety-related issues. She says management is well aware of the chilled work environment.

“I feel that Palisades management, all the way up the chain, is acting completely unethical. I believe they lie in their responses to (federal regulators). I believe they lie to the public. And the safety of the security officers, the public and the environment are put at risk if they’re allowed to keep running the facility under the same management,” Tenhagen said.

Chris Mikusko followed. He worked security at Palisades for 28 years. He says over the past three years, he and his co-workers repeatedly raised concerns to Palisades’ top manager, Site VP Tony Vitale.

"I believe they lie.... And the safety of the security officers, the public and the environment are put at risk if they're allowed to keep running the facility under the same management."

“It wasn’t just a sampling of the security force. It was the whole security force. All four teams brought up concerns of hostile work environment, chilled work environment, no communication. He listened to all four teams, all four of them and he says ‘I’m hearing the same message from all four’ and nothing was ever done,” Mikusko said.

Malich said he and others within the department believe Mikusko and another supervisor were fired in retaliation for continuing to raise concerns.  

“They were looked at as being, as having a bad attitude because they weren’t going with management’s expectations – basically let it go, just let it go, keep letting it go, eventually (regulators) will forget about it and they’ll move on,” Malich said.

Entergy, the company that owns Palisades, would not comment on personnel issues.

But Gustafson did admit during his presentation there's a “fundamental” communications problem within the security department.

He says no one is being terminated for raising concerns, even though that’s the perception according regulators’ inspection. He says security staff needs to know about the company’s plan to improve the “safety conscious work environment.” He also says the company will work to make sure workers who raise concerns are getting updated on whether those concerns are being resolved.

“You obviously have a sender, you have a receiver, but the sender needs to validate that the receivers understood the message – we have failed with respect to that and we vow to improve that.” Gustafson said.

Regulators say it’s too soon to tell if anything the three former employees specifically raised will change their enforcement actions at Palisades.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Kenneth O’Brien, Deputy Director of Reactor Projects Division, noted some frustration with Palisades. The plant had to completely overhaul its internal communication efforts after a series of safety-related issues in 2011 and 2012.

“The fact that we identified this as a continuing issue is a concern to us. We would’ve expected your process, your corrective action program, to have identified that before we got there.” O’Brien said.