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Fission Stories #149

I’m neither stuttering nor reporting from Monty Python’s Department of Redundancy Department. I’m referring to a recent problem at the North Anna Power Station (NAPS).

On June 24, 2013, the NRC informed NAPS’ owner about the findings from an inquiry conducted by its Office of Investigations (OI). The OI determined that a security officer at NAPS had been “deliberately inattentive to duty while posted in a Bullet Resistance Enclosure (BRE)” at NAPS which prevented the owner “from ensuring that all on-duty security force personnel are capable of maintaining continuous communications with each alarm station.”

“Deliberately inattentive” is nukespeak for a range of behaviors the NRC frowns upon. Sleeping while on duty is included, as is intentionally disabling communication equipment so as to occupy the BRE without being interrupted, putting on a headset to listen to recent downloads from iTunes, and catching up on back issues of People magazine.

While the security officer may not have been napping at NAPS, this individual will never be “deliberately inattentive” at NAPS again – the owner deliberately terminated this security officer’s employment.

Our Takeaway

The NRC’s report on this event is cryptic for security and privacy reasons.

Hopefully, this individual was guilty of poor behavior that warranted being fired from the job. UCS has no information about this episode to the contrary.

But UCS has heard about security officers at other nuclear plants being fired for having unintentionally nodded off while on duty.

What’s the difference?

People make mistakes. A fundamental nuclear safety tenet involves mistakes being freely reported. This allows their causes to be identified and appropriate solutions implemented.

An absolute zero tolerance against napping on duty puts the worker who accidentally fell asleep in a no-win position: report the incident and get fired or cover-up the incident and compound the initial sin.

Engineers who accidentally make math errors during calculations, operators who turn the wrong switch during testing, and technicians who skip procedure steps while performing maintenance can report such mistakes without it being career-ending. This allows individual and systemic weaknesses to be identified and corrected.

Security officers who realize they have been unintentionally inattentive while on duty need the same right to report such problems without an initial report ending a long, responsible career.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

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About the author: Mr. Lochbaum received a BS in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1979 and worked as a nuclear engineer in nuclear power plants for 17 years. In 1992, he and a colleague identified a safety problem in a plant where they were working. When their concerns were ignored by the plant manager, the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), they took the issue to Congress. The problem was eventually corrected at the original plant and at plants across the country. Lochbaum joined UCS in 1996 to work on nuclear power safety. He spent a year in 2009-10 working at the NRC Training Center in Tennessee. Areas of expertise: Nuclear power safety, nuclear technology and plant design, regulatory oversight, plant license renewal and decommissioning

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  • Richard

    This raises some interesting and important questions.:

    Are some ‘sins,’ unintentional or not, unforgivable because of their potential for harm?

    Or is this a case of ‘lower echelon’ employees being treated differently than those higher up on the scale of ‘importance?’ Ie, are security officers expendable while engineers or executives are cut more slack for problematic behavior?

  • Sean McKinnon

    Not for nothing but I believe if this NSO had been given a 2nd chance you would be writing about there being no enforcement of rules and safety compromising problems being ignored etc…

    • Richard

      Perhaps you misread my comment. Or perhaps my comment was not clearly stated.

      I was not endorsing giving NSO a second chance.

      If anything, I believe all ‘sins’ with the potential to do as much harm as this one should be duly ‘punished’/dealt with. No matter where on the chain of command a person sits. Ie, engineers, managers, and executives should be treated in the same manner as security guards. If someone messes up in a way that endangers the lives of others, they should pay the price for it.

  • jharragi

    Most security type jobs are not high paying. Many times when people are nodding off, it is because they need second jobs to support themselves. Perhaps the nuclear plant jobs are different and are well paid career positions (or at least they should be), but if you have been paying attention, many plants have been cutting back staff and payroll – and I doubt the security departments are any exception. And just like any other facility that needs security, some plants might be staffed by low bidding contractors…

    I would be curious if my speculation is correct. Please post if you know this information.