NRC to give fatigued nuclear workers some relief

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 07, 2008

Almost 10 years after watchdogs and lawmakers complained about excessive overtime and low staffing levels at the nation's nuclear plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved a new set of rules designed to make plants safer by staving off employee fatigue.

For some workers who staff the two reactor control rooms at Florida Power & Light Co.'s St. Lucie Nuclear Plant on Hutchinson Island, the standards can't take effect quickly enough.

It's not uncommon for licensed reactor operators, who make sure the nuclear reactors are operating correctly 24 hours a day, to work more than 1,000 overtime hours a year, according to operators at the plant. Much of the overtime is forced because staffing of licensed reactor operators has reached "critically low" levels, according to one veteran operator who asked not to be identified because he feared putting his job at risk.

The operators, who usually are college-educated engineers or ex-Navy nuclear workers, often double their base wages of about $85,000 a year because they earn so much overtime. But the frequency of their 12-hour shifts in the control rooms has prompted some to leave for lower-paid positions or other plants.

If staffing gets much lower at St. Lucie, some operators worry that one of the two nuclear reactors at the plant will be forced off line, possibly leading to rolling brownouts. The situation is no better at FPL's Turkey Point plant, according to operators and internal reports filed there.

FPL declined to reveal how many operators it employs, but the company said in a statement that it more than meets Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffing requirements and that it is committed to operating plants "safely and reliably." Regulatory officials confirmed that, saying they had no concerns about operations or safety at the plant.

The operators concede that requirements are being met. But the schedule "just fatigues you," said the veteran operator, who has more than 10 years of experience at the St. Lucie plant. The new rules will mandate days off and breaks between shifts, he said, but it doesn't take effect until Oct. 1, 2009.

"So we sit here at minimum staff, and we work all these hours," he said.

Crisis prevention and caffeine

The men who are reactor operators at the St. Lucie plant - all 20 or so of the unionized operators are men - work 12-hour shifts confined to the control rooms. They staff the rooms in pairs. In each room, one man watches the control panel, monitoring dials and gauges that track the reactor's performance. The other is at a desk, keeping computer logs, running surveillance and answering phones.

They spend their entire shifts in the control room, eating meals at their desks - the room has its own kitchen - and covering for each other during bathroom breaks. They can't read anything unless it's nuclear-related, and they can't listen to the radio.

"You have to force yourself to get up and walk around," the veteran operator said. "These guys live on espresso and coffee."

Some plant workers even take medication to stay alert, he said. The regulatory agency's new fitness-for-duty rule, released March 31, is designed to avoid fatigue. It is the product of years of discussion, including a 1999 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists that outlined overtime and staffing problems in the nuclear industry. Three members of Congress expressed similar concerns to the regulatory commission chairman that year.

Since then, a string of reports about plant workers' falling asleep on the job have made the issue more high profile.

The agency settled on regulations that are more enforceable than its old work-hour guidelines issued in 1982. For the first time, they give the agency teeth to police work-hour violations.

Hiring expected from rule, expansions

The rule is likely to lead to hiring at nuclear plants across the nation, experts say. The new requirements include:

Source: Palm Beach Post