The Arkansas Nuclear One plant in Russellville, Ark., is back on the path to compliance as management and the IBEW work together to live up to the Code of Excellence.
Photo Credits: Entergy/Arkansas Nuclear One  

In 2015, it was safe to say things at Entergy’s Arkansas Nuclear One in Russellville, Ark., were not going well. 

Members of Little Rock, Ark., Local 647 and company officials from Entergy’s Arkansas Nuclear One plant raised the IBEW’s first Code of Excellence Flag at the end of April.

A fatal March 2013 crane collapse and critical findings during an inspection a year later had pushed the two-unit, 1,770 MW nuclear plant into Column 4, the worst Nuclear Regulatory Commission rating prior to mandatory shutdown.

Management at the company wasn’t investing in equipment, maintenance or safety, and the plant’s 300 IBEW permanent staff and hundreds more temporary contractors felt excluded from the decision-making process.

The story of the plant’s turnaround, in light of those challenges, is a lesson in determination and labor-management cooperation.

“To be where we are now, looking back at where we’ve come from, it’s night and day,” said Little Rock, Ark., Local 647 Business Manager Shannon Walters, who represents IBEW members at the plant. “After the NRC moved us into Column 4, things started to change. Entergy put some new people in charge, and it feels like we’re righting the ship.”

The turnaround took some time to get started, but Walters says it really got moving last October when he received an unexpected call from the new plant manager. “Our relationship hadn’t been one where management sought out our input for many years, so it was a welcome surprise to hear from him.”

The new management wanted the local to be a part of the process of fixing things. As luck would have it, Walters and some of his staff had just attended a training session for the IBEW’s Code of Excellence, the union-wide set of professional standards intended to distinguish its highly-trained workforce from the competition. “I said to him, ‘Now would be a great time to roll out the Code of Excellence,’ and the response was, ‘When can you start?’”

Over the fall, Walters and his staff and stewards trained not just the plant’s 300 Local 647 members, but 600 more managers and contractors from every building trade on site. The training followed the IBEW’s SPARQ standard, demanding excellence on the job in safety, professionalism, accountability, relationships and quality.

Some of those who attended the training were IBEW inside wiremen from Little Rock Local 295 and Fort Smith Local 700, but the vast majority were from other trades, including millwrights, pipefitters, carpenters, operating engineers and laborers. Plant steward Randy Flippo said Entergy managers even held Code of Excellence meetings during refueling outages, which would have been unheard of under previous managers.

“To hold those meetings during outages, when every minute is money lost, really showed us that the management was committed to making things better,” Flippo said. “When you get a breath of fresh air like this, it’s great for morale.”

Walters said the message of the Code of Excellence, which is ever-present on bulletin boards and break rooms across the facility, has helped to turn even some of the managers most skeptical of the union. “When we got up there with the Code and said, ‘This is what we stand for,’ I’m certain some of the management nearly fell out of their chairs.”

Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose poor rating prompted the changes, has taken notice, as has the powerful industry watchdog, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. In a June 2 visit to the plant, the institute’s CEO, retired Adm. Bob Willard, took the time to praise Local 647’s role in the positive changes in front of visiting corporate executives and site management.

“This whole job site gets it now,” Walters said. “From the managers to the permanent staff to the contractors who depend on the work here, we’re finally working together, pulling in the same direction, and it’s really refreshing after so many difficult years.”

Management feels the same way. In January, a manager called Walters and asked to fly the IBEW flag alongside Entergy’s to mark the new, collaborative relationship between the two. Walters asked that it be a Code of Excellence flag, something that to that point didn’t exist. But with the OK from the International Office, Local 647 and plant officials raised the IBEW’s first Code of Excellence flag in Russellville at the end of April.

Entergy Operations, Inc.’s site vice president Richard Anderson said at the time, “We are very fortunate to have such strong ownership and engagement from our bargaining unit workforce.”

“It’s really a remarkable thing,” said Flippo, who has worked permanently at the plant since 1990 and as a contractor stretching back into the 1980s. “I’ve been in more meetings with management in the last six months than in the previous three years combined, and managers seem to genuinely want our input on how to improve things.”

The new dialogue between workers and management is paying off, he says, and the company is once again investing millions of dollars upgrading equipment to bring neglected systems up to code. They’re updating operating and safety procedures and even hiring bargaining unit workers in positions that have gone unfilled for years, moves union leaders hope will move back the plant back into Column 3 sometime in the next year.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Flippo said, “but for the first time in years, I’m really hopeful about the direction we’re headed.”