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Nuke Owner Rebuked for Workers’ Crimes

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

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A bizarre plan by two senior nuclear reactor operators to rob an armored car—and then actually commit a carjacking—has led to federal sanctions against the U.S.’s top nuclear operator for lack of employee oversight.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued a Confirmatory Order to Exelon Generation Company LLC for violations of the Behavioral Observation Program at the Dresden Nuclear Power Station in Morris, IL, near Joliet.

The NRC also issued orders banning the former operators—one, now an international fugitive; the other, facing criminal charges—from participating in any NRC-licensed activities.

Michael Buhrman Landon Brittain
Police photos

Former Exelon employee Michael Buhrman (left) remains a fugitive after he was sentenced to a 40-year prison term for hijacking. His former colleague, Landon Brittain (right), is being held on $1 million bail in the crime.

Exelon Nuclear, a business unit of Chicago-based Exelon Generation, owns and operates the largest nuclear fleet in the United States and the third-largest fleet in the world. With 10 power plants and 17 reactors, the company represents about 20 percent of the U.S. nuclear industry's power capacity.

Robbery Plan and Carjacking

The case stems from a plan in July 2011 by senior reactor operator Michael J. Buhrman, now 33, to rob an armored car, the NRC said Monday (Oct. 28). Burhman recruited another senior reactor operator, Landon E. Brittain, 31, to help with the robbery, the agency said in its Oct. 28 order to Buhrman.

Together, according to NRC, Buhrman and Brittain "began planning and attempted to recruit other resources to assist in an armored-car robbery." Those potential recruits included a Dresden equipment operator, who did not report the contact, the NRC said.

Although the armored-car robbery was never carried out, on May 9, 2012, Buhrman carjacked a woman at gunpoint in a store parking lot and stole her 12-year-old car.

He was arrested and charged but fled the United States while out on bail, slicing through a monitoring device and abandoning his wife. In May 2013, he was convicted of the carjacking in absentia and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Fugitive Captured

Brittain then disappeared in November 2012, but was recaptured in Venezuela this June and returned to the United States in July on charges of aggravated vehicular hijacking, vehicular hijacking, and obstruction of justice.

Authorities said Brittain implicated himself in the carjacking, but his role has not yet been publicly explained. He is now being held in Illinois on $1 million bond.

The NRC's order to Brittain notes that he "willfully failed to report" Buhrman "for aberrant behavior."

Buhrman is also believed to be in Venezuela and pursuing a life of crime, according to detailed news accounts from Enformable Nuclear News.

News reports described both men as well paid in their Exelon positions, and their motivation for the crimes was not known. One report said Buhrman had told prospective Dresden recruits that he wanted to "get back at the system."

Burhman and Brittain
Enformable Nuclear News

An undated photo shows Burhman (left) and Brittain in happier days. Both were senior reactor operators for Exelon, the largest nuclear power owner/operator in the U.S.

Buhrman had been in the private nuclear industry since 2005, when he was honorably discharged from the Navy's nuclear program.

Exelon Sanctioned

Although Buhrman's and Brittain's crimes were committed off the job and away from the Dresden plant, the NRC is holding Exelon responsible for violating the agency's "Behavior Observation Program." The agency said Exelon was lax in supervising the men at Dresden, a two-unit plant that began operation in 1960.

"The NRC concluded that Buhrman’s and Brittain’s actions while offsite demonstrated they could not be relied upon to adhere to NRC requirements to protect plant and public safety," the NRC said.

"In addition, Dresden personnel who knew about Buhrman’s plan to commit an offsite crime failed to report the situation to plant management, which is an NRC requirement for workers who have unescorted access to the plant."

In a letter July 3 to Exelon Generation's Chief Nuclear Officer, the NRC said an Equipment Operator at Dresden who had been recruited by Burhman and Brittain "willfully" failed to report the "aberrant behavior" and "plans to commit a violent crime."

The order to Exelon was issued as a result of a mediated Alternative Dispute Resolution process that the company requested "in order to avoid further action by the NRC," the agency noted in its order to Exelon.

Nevertheless, NRC called the order a "strong regulatory action." Under the order, Exelon agreed to:

  • Enhance the behavioral observation program procedure at all Exelon nuclear plants;
  • Provide training to company staff on those revisions;
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the training; and
  • Present "the facts and lessons learned from this incident" at industry forums.

Exelon Response

Exelon spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski said in an emailed statement Tuesday (Oct. 29) that the company was "satisfied with the agreement" reached during the ADR process.

Dresden Nuclear Power Plant
Exelon Generation

Even though the carjacking occurred offsite, Burhman recruited colleagues at Dresden Generating Station for an armed robbery—"aberrant behavior" that should have been reported, the NRC said.

"Exelon has already taken a number of actions, and will comply with additional actions set forth in the order," the statement said.

"The activities occurred off company property, during non-working hours and it did not affect the safety of the plant."

'Questionable Behavior'

Nevertheless, the NRC considered Exelon's lapse serious.

“We expect nuclear workers to be trustworthy and feel responsible for plant safety," said NRC Region III Administrator Cynthia D. Pederson. "This includes alerting management should they encounter questionable behavior in other workers."

The failure to flag Burhman's and Brittain's behavior showed training and program lapses and a "failure to adhere to NRC requirements," Pederson said.

"This situation was unusual; we do not normally encounter this type of egregious behavior in plant workers," she added. "For this reason, the NRC has taken strong regulatory action against the individuals involved and the plant. Exelon is taking steps to address the problem and we will evaluate their effectiveness going forward.”

   

Tagged categories: Enforcement; Exelon; Health and safety; Laws and litigation; Nuclear Power Plants; Workers

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