NRC seeks to keep nuclear plant guards in Pa. more alert with new rules

By The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

HARRISBURG — Federal regulators are revising work rules to help keep security guards at nuclear plants alert and not sleepy, recognizing that fatigue can also be an enemy for workers who must be prepared to make life-or-death decisions.

For years, industry watchdogs have complained that low staffing has increased the workload for guards and made them more prone to "inattentiveness" — a catchall term nuclear operators use to describe napping and other behavior that can distract them.

Now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hopes changes in fitness-for-duty rules approved last month will address growing worries about fatigue among plant security workers.

The revisions still need approval from the federal Office of Management and Budget but the NRC action shows that the industry and regulators acknowledge there is a problem, which was "half the battle," said Eric Epstein of Three Mile Island Alert, a group that monitors operations at nearby Three Mile Island.

The fitness-for-duty revisions require that guards regularly scheduled for shifts of eight or 10 hours get at least 10 hours rest between shifts, up from eight. Security workers at many plants also work shifts of 12 hours on, 12 hours off, typically three or four days a week.

The NRC also decided to end a practice that allowed plants to meet work-hour limits by using the average of hours worked by groups of employees in certain departments.

Under that practice, guards on 12-hour shifts working 60 hours a week because of overtime might get grouped in with guards working regular four-day, 48-hour work weeks.

"I think it's going to go a long ways to addressing concerns we've heard to this point," said David Desaulniers, a human factors analyst for the NRC.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, agreed with the decision to do away with the system of averaging work hours, said Jack Roe, director of operations.

But the institute has found no proof that fatigue has been an issue in nuclear safety, and believes inattentiveness can be attributed to non-work factors other than fatigue, Roe said.

The NRC first released fitness-for-duty rules for plant workers in 1982, and the rules are periodically reviewed. Work hour limits and rest requirements were instituted in 2003.

Security at nuclear plants is often handled by private subcontractors. Even then, utilities supervise the guard force and must follow NRC guidelines.

In 2005, three security workers were investigated for "inattentiveness" at Three Mile Island. The incidents were brought to light in reports by The Patriot-News of Harrisburg.

Plant spokesman Ralph DeSantis said none of the incidents were considered violations but that TMI operators still found them to be unacceptable. He said the plant increased oversight and offered coaching to guards who needed help in staying alert for duty, and that no incidents of inattentiveness were reported last year.

The Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group, said the main issue is staffing levels in an industry where the pressure to protect reactors from outside threats has intensified since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Utilities simply don't want to spend money for guards," said Peter Stockton, an investigator for the watchdog group. "It's cheaper to pay for more overtime than hire more guards."

The group last year notified the NRC that security personnel at the Beaver Valley nuclear plant in Shippingport, in western Pennsylvania, were working 60- to 72-hour work weeks.

That wouldn't necessarily have violated old guidelines because the work hours for those guards could have been averaged with those working, for instance, 48 hours or less.

Spokesman Todd Schneider of First Energy Corp., which runs the plant, said the problem was due to a "scheduling issue" that had been resolved.

"These guards are not fit in that situation," Stockton said.

Schneider said First Energy is in "good shape" to meet the new regulations, which he said should have only minimal impact on operations.

Three Mile Island is operated by AmerGen, a subsidiary of Warrenville, Ill.-based Exelon Nuclear. Exelon also owns Peach Bottom and Limerick in Pennsylvania, as well as plants in Illinois and New Jersey.

Exelon spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski said the company was assessing how the revisions in the fitness-for-duty rules would affect staffing, scheduling and training, but that the company sees them as helping maintain safe, reliable operations at all plants.

The new rules provide the utilities leeway with scheduling during times of outages or emergencies.

Nuclear plants were among the most secure commercial facilities in the United States before Sept. 11, and requirements were strengthened after 2001, said Roe of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The industry group remains concerned, he said, about security personnel being held to different work-hour standards than employees in other kinds of industries.

NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan, in a statement approving the new regulations, said there was a reason for different standards.

"I would suggest that the scientific basis rests in the fact that these officers carry loaded AR-15s and other weapons, and must be prepared to make life-or-death decisions throughout their shifts," he wrote.

The NRC's Desaulniers said the new rules also expand training programs that might help guards better manage fatigue and understand sleeping patterns.

"The rule is about managing fatigue, not managing work-hours," Desaulniers said. "We can't think the work-hour limits by themselves will solve all the problems."

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review