Snoozing-guard report sends ripples through nuclear industry
Share with others:
WASHINGTON -- 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 York County were taking regular naps in what they called "the ready room."
When he spoke to supervisors at his company, Wackenhut Corp., they told Mr. 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 a frustrated Mr. Beal videotaped the sleeping guards. The tape, eventually given to a CBS television affiliate, 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 leading provider of nuclear power, fired Wackenhut, the security company that guarded its 10 nuclear plants. The NRC is reviewing its own oversight procedures, after it failed to heed Mr. Beal's warning. And Wackenhut says that the entire nuclear industry needs to rethink security measures 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 previously 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 Wackenhut 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 Rowe added: "We had had some difficulties with them from time to time. We felt the incident with the guards was the last straw."
But 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, 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 Jaczko.
History of controversy
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's Mr. Rowe conceded in an interview. "Their performance is ultimately our responsibility. There's no way to paint that wagon any brighter."
For Wackenhut, controversy is nothing new.
Former FBI agent George Wackenhut founded the company in Miami in 1954 as a four-man detective agency and built it into a huge private security firm that now has 35,000 employees. Mr. Wackenhut, who died nearly three years ago, wooed prominent people to his board, including former heads of the FBI, Secret Service and Pentagon. Today the company, now owned by a British firm, Group 4 Securicor, does everything from guarding libraries to transporting immigration detainees for the Department of Homeland Security to guarding the government's Y-12 complex at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where nuclear weapons and materials are stored and maintained.
The company has a history of bad relations with its workers, which some experts say could undermine security procedures. The Union of Concerned Scientists said it has received complaints dating back to 2001 from Wackenhut nuclear site workers, including one who was disciplined for declining to work a sixth 12-hour shift in one week while taking medication for a back injury.
In 2006, the NRC dispatched inspection teams to the Turkey Point nuclear plant in Florida to follow up on complaints of security problems. The Union of Concerned Scientists said that unhappy Wackenhut security guards at the plant had sabotaged their own equipment.
"Wackenhut's track record shows no regard for the welfare of their workforce or for public safety," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 25,000 security workers and has been organizing workers at Wackenhut sites.
"Wackenhut, along with the entire contract security industry, is the target of a massive effort by the SEIU to increase its membership and thereby its financial coffers," said Marc Shapiro, senior vice president of Group 4 Securicor.
It isn't only workers and the SEIU highlighting problems, though. Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman has cited Wackenhut for a series of problems at the nation's most sensitive nuclear weapons sites.
In 2003, a Wackenhut employee took two government-owned handguns and one of his own in a briefcase to the National Nuclear Security Administration's Nevada test site, according to an IG report.
In 2005, the inspector general said that at the NNSA's Oak Ridge site, Wackenhut had routinely worked security personnel more than the 60-hour-a-week maximum permitted there. In addition, Wackenhut had misled the government about worker training. It reported planned training as actual training time, and protective-force personnel had signed attendance rosters for on-the-job refresher training they had not attended, the IG report said.
Mr. Friedman's office also found that one Wackenhut unit, hired by the NRC to simulate an attack on nuclear facilities, had tipped off another Wackenhut unit charged with guarding the facilities at Y-12 about the attack strategy. Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said in a 2004 letter to the NRC that "this is more than a case of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. It is not an apparent conflict of interest -- but a blatant conflict of interest."
Regulators and some Wackenhut employees say, however, that some notice is always given to plants about to undergo a test and that the attackers in such "force-on-force" exercises often succeed in penetrating defenses. Officials from the NNSA said the inspector general exaggerated.
Last summer, in testimony before a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Mr. Friedman said, "We did not use the word 'cheating' in the report, but it was. The test was compromised."
Despite the problems, in June Wackenhut was awarded contracts worth $549 million to protect the Y-12 National Security Complex and the Energy Department's Oak Ridge facility for another five years. But a spokeswoman for the IG said the Energy Department "is considering doing a feasibility study of federalizing the guard force at Y-12."
The heightened crisis for Wackenhut's nuclear operations comes just as the head of that unit, Mr. Wilson, has been trying to change the industry's approach to security and improve Wackenhut operations. A former member of the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, he joined the company in 2004 and took over the nuclear security unit about a year ago. He has made the rounds of company critics and watchdog groups in Washington.
Mr. Wilson said the nuclear industry improved operating safety procedures after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 but that the industry has not taken similar steps on security procedures since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The size of security staff at nuclear power plants has more than doubled as a portion of total staffing, yet low pay makes it "difficult to attract the right staff and leadership talent." He said corporate investment in the area was "inadequate."
Exelon's Mr. Rowe said, however, that "it's hard to say you're overusing people when the reason they went to sleep is that they had nothing to do."
"All companies, from time to time, have employees who do not perform up to standards. When this occurs, we address the problem," Mr. Wilson said in a Nov. 15 letter protesting an editorial cartoon in the Miami Herald about the sleeping guards. "While others mock and belittle our employees for the actions of a few, I applaud them for their hard work."
Mr. Wilson proposed expanded training and re-training programs and college-level offerings for guards. He also favored the introduction of devices similar to those carried by firefighters; if the device detects no movement for a given period of time, it would page itself, and if a worker does not answer promptly, other security guards would be dispatched to investigate.
"Eric has good ideas and comes across as sincere in wanting to implement them," said the Union of Concerned Scientists' Lochbaum, who has met Mr. Wilson twice. "I'm not sure he will have the time he needs to make it happen. Because Wackenhut treated its guards so badly for so long, many have lost trust in the company and view Eric's talk as just that."
First Published January 6, 2008 12:00 am