NRC approves work-hour limits for some plant workers

April 26, 2007
Of The Patriot-News

Security workers and others in critical jobs at the nation's nuclear plants will no longer be allowed to log excessive overtime hours under new rules approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The change in the NRC's "fitness for duty" requirements is meant to reduce fatigue among plant employees and improve safety and security.

Exelon Nuclear, owner of
Three Mile Island, Peach Bottom and Limerick nuclear stations in Pennsylvania, and seven other plants nationwide, expects to increase security staffing to reduce overtime.

"Any area where you have 24/7 coverage is most likely to be impacted," said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for the company.

The regulations, which should go into effect this year, end a policy that allowed plant operators to meet work-hour limits by averaging the hours of dozens of employees. The process allowed some employees to log hundreds of hours of overtime a month. The new rule bases hourly limits on individuals.

The work-hour limits apply to security, maintenance and operations staffers, such as control room operators.

The rule is common sense, said Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.

"Groups don't get tired. People do," he said.

David Desaulniers, an NRC staffer who helped shepherd the rule change through a seven-year administrative review, said the revision will improve plant safety.

"I think that what the commission has approved will be a substantial step forward in addressing worker fatigue issues in the future," said Desaulniers, senior human factors analyst for the agency.
The shortcomings of group averaging were evident at TMI, where some security officers employed by Wackenhut Nuclear Services logged 72-hour weeks for six weeks straight last year.

In 2005,
TMI officials cited three security workers for being inattentive or sleeping on the job. Each incident occurred during the night shift. Security officers contacted by The Patriot-News at the time said the incidents were not surprising given the overtime officers were being compelled to work.

The NRC rule, which must undergo review by the federal Office of Management and budget before it goes into effect, also:
·  Increases the minimum break between shifts from eight hours to 10.
·  Establishes training requirements for fatigue management.
·  Limits the reasons plant operators may waive the hourly limits.
·  Revises drug- and alcohol-testing requirements.

A veteran security officer at
TMI employed by Wackenhut welcomed the changes.
"It will definitely keep things from getting really bad again like they were in '02 and '03," said the officer, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
Another officer, also requesting anonymity, said the change would significantly reduce fatigue. But he remained skeptical of how much leeway employers would have to waive the rules under special circumstances.

Though the NRC establishes the regulations, it does not require plants to obtain agency approval before authorizing a worker to go over the limit.

Eric Epstein, chairman of the Harrisburg-based watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert, had similar concerns.
"I believe the standards are contingent upon voluntary compliance," he said. "I see nothing that suggests there will be more aggressive oversight of a new fitness-for-duty program."

255-8264 or

©2007 The Patriot-News