January 8, 2009 -- The operators of a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant have been fined $65,000 after a federal commission learned several security guards at the facility were sleeping while on duty.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) leveled the penalty against Chicago-based Exelon Nuclear after an investigation found "multiple occasions during which multiple guards were inattentive" at the Peach Bottom plant outside of Philadelphia.
"They are in the ready room to be on watch or to respond," said Diane Screnci, a spokesperson for the NRC. "They were not attentive."
Beth Archer, a spokesperson for Exelon Nuclear, agreed that the behavior of the guards was unacceptable. "We have agreed to pay the fine," said Archer. "We feel the amount was appropriate for the issue."
Peter Stockton, a senior investigator at Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based government watchdog organization, called the fine incurred by Exelon "unbelievable" and said it was not enough.
"The NRC really needs to change the fee structure and make it painful for them," said Stockton. "It's not much of a deterrent. What good does it do to whack them with a $65,000 fine? That company makes hundreds of millions of dollars. That's a drop in the bucket for them."
The violation against Exelon was issued as a Severity Level III in accordance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission enforcement policy and carries a minimum fine of $65,000. Security levels II and I carry higher minimum fines.
The NRC investigation began after they received a videotape in September 2007 that showed security guards sleeping in the ready room of the Peach Bottom nuclear plant.
Video of the sleeping guards was first obtained and the story reported by WCBS-TV in New York.
While Exelon expressed concern about the guards sleeping on duty and has agreed to pay the fine, Archer insisted "This was not a significant impact on the security of Peach Bottom," and "at no time was security compromised."
Archer continued by saying Peach Bottom's defense and depth security system includes security officers on duty at various check points and security towers, as well as those constantly patrolling the station.
She noted that other on duty officers would have responded in the case of an emergency, although she admitted "There would be a slight delay."
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"That's nonsense," Stockton said in response to the claim that security was not compromised. He insisted "there is no defense and depth if these guys are asleep." Stockton stressed the speed in which emergencies or attacks can occur and the need for guards to act quickly.
The security guards caught napping on duty were employees of Florida-based security firm Wachenhut Corporation which was contracted with Exelon. After the videotape came to light and an internal investigation concluded, Exelon terminated its contract with Wachenhut at all 10 of its plants.
Wachenhut did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
Since the security guard incident in 2007, Archer said security has improved and Exelon has "taken several corrective measures to make sure this doesn't happen again at any of our sites." It has since created Exelon Nuclear Security, its own in-house security department.
Stockton doesn't believe Exelon's new security team or the relatively small fine will keep them in line.
"It's a systemic problem throughout the complex," Stockton commented. "If it hadn't been filmed they probably would have ignored it."
Stockton believes the NRC likely spent more than the fine amount to investigate the violation. He insisted Exelon should have been fined at least a million dollars because of the potential severity of the violation and other issues the plant has had over the years.
Archer said Peach Bottom has not been previously fined for this issue and that since Exelon Nuclear Security has been in place, she is not aware of security officers being caught asleep on the job.
The Peach Bottom nuclear plant produces electricity for two million homes largely serving central Pennsylvania, Maryland and parts of New Jersey.