Video of Sleeping Guards Shakes Nuclear Industry
Friday, January 4, 2008
Kerry Beal was taken aback when he discovered last March that many of his fellow security guards at the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania were taking regular naps in what they called "the ready room."
When he spoke to supervisors at his company, Wackenhut Corp., they told Beal to be a team player. When he alerted the regional office of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, regulators let the matter drop after the plant's owner, Exelon, said it found no evidence of guards asleep on the job.
So Beal videotaped the sleeping guards. The tape, eventually given to WCBS, a CBS television affiliate in New York City, showed the armed workers snoozing against walls, slumped on tabletops or with eyes closed and heads bobbing.
The fallout of the broadcast is still being felt. Last month, Exelon, the country's largest provider of nuclear power, fired Wackenhut, which had guarded each of its 10 nuclear plants. The NRC is reviewing its own oversight procedures, having failed to heed Beal's warning. And Wackenhut says that the entire nuclear industry needs to rethink security if it hopes to meet the tougher standards the NRC has tried to impose since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
The most immediate impact has been felt at Wackenhut, which protected half of the nation's 62 commercial nuclear power plants. Exelon's decision to terminate Wackenhut's contract reduces the number of commercial sites protected by the company to 21.
"In the past, the standards were not our standards," said Craig Nesbit, vice president of communications at Exelon. "They were Wackenhut standards, and that's not what we want, and we're going to fix that." Exelon chief executive John W. Rowe added: "We had had some difficulties with them from time to time. We felt the incident with the guards was the last straw."
While Wackenhut has a long history of alleged flaws in its nuclear security operations and labor discontent, there is plenty of blame to go around.
The NRC, which in the past has referred 40 percent of wrongdoing allegations to nuclear plant licensees, is looking at its own procedures as well as Wackenhut's. David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, faults the NRC for "failing to 'connect the dots' " between Peach Bottom and other complaints about Wackenhut.
"More than anything else, we have to change the way the NRC responds to these allegations," said commission member Gregory B. Jaczko.
Exelon has come under scrutiny, too, from congressional and NRC investigators. Eric Wilson, the head of Wackenhut's nuclear security operations, was not available for comment for this article, but he has pointed a finger at the nuclear plant owners like Exelon.
In a slide presentation he made to watchdog groups last year, he said nuclear plant owners have pressed so hard for lower costs that "we are now 'down to the bone' " and that "the current business model does not yield consistently acceptable performance levels."
"The contractor worked for us," Exelon chief Rowe conceded in an interview. "Their performance is ultimately our responsibility. There's no way to paint that wagon any brighter."