Fission Stories #9: Nuclear Narcolepsy

August 31, 2010
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

On March 24, 1987, the NRC’s Region I office received allegations from a whistleblower that operators at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant were sleeping on duty in the control room. The NRC immediately sent inspectors to the Pennsylvania plant to investigate. The inspectors reported:

At times during various shifts, in particular the 11:00 pm to 7:00 am shift, one or more of the Peach Bottom operations control room staff (including licensed operators, senior licensed operators and shift supervision) have for at least the past few months periodically slept or have been otherwise inattentive to licensed duties.

NRC inspectors found all three operators asleep during a midnight shift and the shift supervisor reading a magazine. On another shift, the shift superintendent, the shift supervisor, and two operators were asleep while the remaining operator was awake, but he was not in the control room. Finally, the NRC inspectors found the operators on another shift gathered around a console playing a computer game.

A week after receiving the allegations, the NRC ordered Philadelphia Electric to immediately shut down both reactors at Peach Bottom. The NRC explained:

Sleeping while on duty in the control room demonstrates a total disregard for performing licensed duties and a lack of appreciation for what those duties entail.

And because management at the plant knew or should have known about it, the NRC said that itlacked “reasonable assurance that the facility will be operated in a manner to assure that the health and safety of the public will be protected.”

The two reactors at Peach Bottom remained closed for over two years. The NRC fined the operators who had slept on duty and also fined the company for allowing it to happen. Then, with a brand new management team and very well-rested operators, the reactors restarted.

In March 2007, the NRC’s Region I office received allegations from a whistleblower that security officers at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant were sleeping on duty. Within a month, the NRC mailed a letter to the plant’s owner asking them if security officers were sleeping on duty. Within a month, the company mailed its reply back to the NRC. The company essentially answered, “no, but thanks for asking.”

Nonetheless, security officers continued to sleep on duty at Peach Bottom. The whistleblower videotaped the entire squad asleep in the ready room on several occasions. Apparently not wishing to put the NRC to the trouble and expense of mailing another letter to the plant’s owner, the whistleblower provided the videotapes to a TV reporter. The picture above is a still photograph from that videotape showing two security guards napping on duty. When the reporter notified the NRC that he had a videotape of security officers asleep at Peach Bottom, the agency abandoned its pen-pal campaign and actually sent inspectors to the site to investigate. By the way, Peach Bottom is only about 70 miles away from the NRC’s Region I offices.

The NRC inspectors substantiated that security officers had slept on duty on numerous occasions. The NRC did not order Peach Bottom to be shut down. The NRC did not fine the security officers who had slept on duty or the company that allowed it to happen. The NRC did watch, and only watch, as the company fired the whistleblower who had risked – and lost – his job trying to end this recurring unsafe practice.

Our Takeaway:

Sleeping on duty is indefensible whether one works in a nuclear power plant or in the NRC’s offices. When the NRC received information about sleeping security officers in March 2007, they were essentially asleep at the switch. They meekly mailed a letter to the company asking if it were true.

Did Eliot Ness and his Untouchables write Al Capone a letter asking if it was true his gang was handling illegal booze?

Did the Boston Police Department write Joseph “Specs” O’Keefe a letter asking if he and his chums pulled the Brink’s robbery?

Did the NRC write Peach Bottom a letter in 1987 asking if control room operators were napping?

Heck no, that’d be stupid.

So why did the NRC write the company in 2007 asking if security officers were napping?

If not because it reacted stupidly, then perhaps because the NRC was channeling Rhett Butler and simply didn’t give a darn.

The NRC did the right things in 1987 by taking the allegations it received seriously and protecting the identify (and job) of the whistleblower.

The NRC did the wrong things in 2007 by not taking the allegations seriously. The NRC then compounded its mistake by watching the whistleblower lose his job largely because the agency had not done its job.

The NRC needs to do the job right.  Even when reporters aren’t forcing them to get off the bench and into the game.

“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.