Probe finds TMI guards' overtime within rules
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Of The Patriot-News

Overtime hours worked by security officers at Three Mile Island for much of last year were mostly within limits imposed by federal regulators, an investigation by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded.

The NRC initiated the probe in response to a story published in The Patriot-News in February, in which security workers expressed concerns about the effect mandatory overtime was having on their effectiveness and their families.

The officers, who are employed by Wackenhut Nuclear Services, also said that a manpower shortage was disrupting training schedules and that fatigued staff were reluctant to report themselves unfit for duty for fear of losing their jobs.

Pay records obtained by the newspaper showed that one employee worked 13 hours a day, five to six days a week for six weeks.

But the NRC, relying on an internal investigation carried out by Exelon Nuclear, the parent company of plant operator AmerGen Energy, concluded that the hours worked were allowable under agency rules. Those rules allow individuals to work up to 72 hours a week. The rule also permits plant operators to average the hours worked by several employees, allowing some, but not all, to spend longer hours on the job.

The probe found two exceptions where a security officer worked more than the allowed hours. The finding was characterized as a minor violation that didn't require an enforcement action, according to the NRC's report.

Investigators found two instances where training was delayed, but both sessions were rescheduled, the report said.

Investigators also found that some security officers believed they could be disciplined for reporting themselves unfit for duty. But a review of Wackenhut records for 2006 "found no instances in which an officer was disciplined for self declaring," the report said.

Rules to change:

The agency's report drew critical responses from watchdog groups and plant workers who questioned the legitimacy of its conclusion, given that it was carried out by the plant owner.

"You have the numbers that show what we were working. I think they speak for themselves," said a plant employee who asked not to be identified. "Fatigue and fitness-for-duty issues will always be a problem when you are working 12-hour shifts and trying to do more with less."

Though the NRC's work-hour rules were met, the agency is poised to adopt new rules that would make it harder for plant operators to work employees more than 48 hours a week. The new rules, expected to go into effect this year, would eliminate group averaging.

The change would force most plant owners to hire more officers, industry officials said.

TMI has added several security officers to its staff this year, AmerGen spokesman Ralph DeSantis said.

"The old condition was that people were trained on overtime," he said. "Now we're to the point where officers can be trained on regularly scheduled work time. This is where we want to get to."

Earlier this year, Wackenhut signed a contract with the United Government Security Workers of America, the union that represents the security workers. The contract calls for increasing the guard force by 12 percent over three years.

"We now have the officers needed to properly man each crew/shift," said Michael Burke, a union officer. "We have significantly cut our fatigue issues to where fitness-for-duty issues should not cause us problems."

Conflict of interest?:

Some industry observers criticized the NRC's policy of having the company investigate itself.

The TMI probe was carried out by a member of Exelon's Nuclear oversight group and a security manager, DeSantis said.

"How can the NRC allow AmerGen to investigate itself?" asked Tom Olivett, a former member of the TMI security force and a former intelligence analyst for the Army. "Is that not like allowing the rapist to investigate his own crime? What was the NRC thinking?"

Eric Epstein, chairman of the watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert, had similar concerns.

"AmerGen is not fit to examine and pardon itself," he said.

Richard J. Urban, a senior allegation coordinator for the NRC, said the agency lacks the manpower to investigate each allegation it receives, so it refers concerns back to the plant operators. "We ask that somebody who is independent of the concern come and look at it."

The results of the TMI review were verified by an independent review of plant security by the NRC's physical security baseline inspection, which happens roughly once a year, he said.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the NRC's investigations go farther than they used to.

"The company will do the bulk of the work, but the NRC will look at the path they took to see if it's legit," he said.

GARRY LENTON: 255-8264 or