Dominion offers buyouts to its work force

Waterford - Dominion is offering voluntary buyouts to nearly half of its 1,285 employees at Millstone Power Station, and plans to accept offers for about 200 workers.

About 550 employees at the nuclear power complex are eligible to apply for the buyout. Those workers are at least 55 years old and also have at least three years of company service, or will meet those requirements by March 1, said Dominion Spokesman Richard Zuercher.

The buyout provides two months of pay, plus a month's pay for every year of service up to 18 years. Most employees who take the buyout will leave March 1, but some may be asked to stay on to help complete an April refueling outage, Zuercher said.

That would leave Millstone with just under 1,100 employees, not counting contracted workers and security staff, who are not affected by the buyout, he said.

When Dominion of Virginia, the parent company of Millstone owner Dominion Nuclear Connecticut, bought the Waterford station, 1,625 people worked there, Zuercher said. Attrition and a 2003 voluntary buyout accounted for the workforce reduction to date, he said.

"Our focus remains on nuclear safety," said Site Vice President Skip Jordan. "That's our core value and our top priority. Reducing the staff to this level will have no effect on the operation of the station. We are not going down to the minimum requirements (specified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission). We've got margin."

For instance, NRC Spokesman Neil Sheehan said, there must be a minimum of seven workers in the control room of both reactors at all times, except during a refueling outage or cold shutdown, when the minimum is three. Jordan noted that will remain the case, and that all buyout offers are made at the discretion of management.

Operating efficiently as part of a unified fleet of company-owned reactors is the main reason for the downsizing, company officials said. Today, Dominion's fleet encompasses reactors not only in Connecticut and Virginia but in Wisconsin as well.

"Improvements in planning and procedures, automation and better use of the Dominion nuclear fleet resources make it possible to operate Millstone safely, reliably and in compliance with all laws and regulations with a smaller staff," said David Heacock, the company's chief nuclear officer, in a statement.

Ed Lyman, a senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., warned that such a broad buyout of experienced senior employees could jeopardize plant safety.

"To the extent this is protecting their bottom line they shouldn't be pennywise and pound foolish," he said. "It's essential to make sure the knowledge and experience of senior people are preserved."

Sheehan, of the NRC, noted that an aging workforce is a concern across the nuclear industry and within the NRC, not just at Millstone. The industry is working aggressively to replace those workers with qualified personnel, he said.

In 2007 and 2008, Jordan said, scores of new employees were hired at Millstone in anticipation of today's buyouts. The recession has also prevented what might have otherwise been more natural attrition, he added.

Heacock added that "no reductions will be made if they would in any way compromise the safe operation of the station."

In fact, Zuercher and Jordan say a number of steps have been taken to preserve the expertise that will be lost with these early retirements.

It used to take days for a worker at one of Dominion's other power stations to qualify to replace another worker at Millstone for plant access, training, fitness for duty, or the deployment of safety protection equipment, for example, Zuercher said. Today, procedures have been standardized and interchangeable workers are qualified electronically to work at different reactors within the fleet, he said.

Before offering the buyout, Dominion also studied reactor owners' approaches to fleet management in Arkansas, North Carolina, Illinois and New York, in order to improve its own procedures, Zuercher said. He would not name the companies or power stations used as models.

"We looked at other companies and who is doing things the best and upgraded our procedures and made them effective fleetwide," he said.

The Nuclear Energy Institute's data on staffing also contributed toward Dominion's efforts to determine the optimal number of employees at Millstone, Zuercher said.

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