Retired Millstone worker alleges safety compromises at Millstone, NRC

Federal regulators are investigating allegations by a retired Millstone Power Station worker that plant owner Dominion puts profits ahead of safety and that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not thoroughly managing safety issues.

David Collins of Old Lyme, a pro-nuclear retiree who took a company buyout in March, says the way Dominion has handled staffing cuts in key areas at the nuclear complex, along with an electrical mishap that forced a manual shutdown at the plant and the monitoring of fire doors, contribute to a "cover-up culture" that could compromise public safety just the way it was compromised in the late 1990s at the Waterford plant and in 2002 at the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio.

Dominion officials deny the allegations about lax safety at the plant or that profits are motivating cutbacks in staffing.

Collins is concerned about the danger to the public posed by lax regulatory oversight and mismanagement of "safety culture," such as occurred at Davis-Besse in 2002. In that case, in which a reactor lid was corroded by an acid leak, a Government Accountability Report found the NRC "should have but did not identify or prevent the vessel head corrosion" because of inaccurate and incomplete inspections.

"If you have a scary accident like Davis-Besse again, you're going to scare everybody in the country" about the viability and benefits of nuclear power, Collins says.

"We've said there were areas where the NRC could have done a better job (at Davis-Besse), but some of the information provided to us was not entirely accurate," says Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC.

Collins submitted his detailed allegations and a call to reinstate laid-off workers in a 36-page paper to the NRC at a recent public meeting of the Nuclear Energy Advisory Council, a regional watchdog group. He has agreed with the NRC to be identified publicly, says Sheehan.

The NRC's independent Office of Inspector General is investigating the allegations as they pertain to NRC staff's handling of such concerns. The NRC also is forming its own panel to screen specific allegations, Sheehan says. Some allegations could ultimately be referred to the NRC Office of Investigations, which would then investigate further.

"We have a reactor oversight process put in place in 2000 and we're constantly trying to improve it," says Sheehan, "but we believe it has been very effective in accurately capturing plant performance. If we get any indications of problems, we'll increase oversight. We've done that at Millstone and we've done it over the years at other plants."

A chief concern in Collins' paper, which has now been expanded to 57 pages, involves the potential impact on safety because of staffing cuts at the Waterford nuclear complex, which included 149 buyouts and 54 layoffs earlier this year, and reduced staffing to 1,085.

Dominion cut from 11 to six the number of workers assigned to an "organizational effectiveness" division, of which Collins had been a part. The group focuses on ensuring the company's two reactors are operated properly.

Six is half the number that industry counterparts meeting at an industry watchdog agency in Atlanta known as INPO, or the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, believe constitute minimal staffing, says Collins.

INPO, which works to instill excellence across the nuclear industry but does not have regulatory authority, maintains confidential relationships within the industry, says a spokesman who declined comment.

Dominion counters that the cuts were part of a reorganization based on a study that calls for efficiencies in staffing across Dominion's fleet of reactors in Waterford, Virginia and Wisconsin. Review of operating experience, a chief function of organizational effectiveness, is now done across that fleet.

Dominion says the study is proprietary and is not available to the public.

"We feel (six) is definitely adequate for the job we have to do," says A.J. "Skip" Jordan, site vice president at Millstone, in an interview with The Day this week.

Jordan says operating performance and reliability at Millstone's two operating reactors have improved since Dominion bought the plants from Northeast Utilities in 2001. Dominion has reinvested more than $100 million in the reactors, he said, including a new reactor vessel head at Unit 2 and equipment that reduces cooling water intake at both reactors.

"If cost-cutting is your driver, you wouldn't have made the investment, not only in the equipment but in the people," he says. "Dominion and Millstone are in it for the long haul. Some of the opinions expressed by Mr. Collins would say we're in it for the short term, and clearly we're not. We're not perfect, but we do pursue improvements at the station."

Asked if the cutbacks reflect a return to the days of the late 1990s, when Millstone was shut down by federal regulatory authorities for mismanagement, Jordan says, "You want to learn from your history, but you don't want to be held hostage to it. I think we've developed a safety culture at the plants that is strong."

At the most recent Nuclear Energy Advisory Council meeting held this past month in Waterford, Dominion acknowledged inappropriately working on a live 345,000-volt switch last fall while the Millstone Unit 2 reactor was still online, which forced a premature shutdown four days before a refueling outage. But Collins says in his paper that Dominion tried to obscure the implications of the incident from the NRC and was trying to get the work done outside of the outage to save time and money.

Jordan counters that there was no intent to do either.

"We didn't get this right," he says, but "there was no intent to get an extra job done before the outage."

Collins also alleges that Dominion too rapidly changed the protocol for making sure fire doors are properly closed by eliminating "fire watches" where people would actually be assigned to monitor a broken fire door until it was fixed, even though backup procedures were not fully in place.

It is now up to people passing through to make sure fire doors close properly as well as report malfunctions.

Jordan says that the changes in procedure involve a change in habits and "culture" at the plant that naturally took some time. Fire doors "are getting closed, identified when there's a problem and repaired," he says.

Collins also argues he was unfairly "held back" in his job with the organizational effectiveness division at Millstone and deserves an upgrade in his pension. Jordan says the company had Collins' job issues reviewed by an independent outside expert, whom he would not identify, and they weren't substantiated.

Collins also calls on the regional advisory council to determine whether the Unit 3 reactor now shut for refueling should stay shut "until staffing [and other safety issues] are investigated and [if necessary] addressed."

Bill Sheehan, chairman of NEAC, declines to comment on any of Collins' allegations until the NRC completes its review. He says it is not within the council's authority to call for the continued shutdown of the Unit 3 reactor.

Collins also says the NRC should have people with safety culture expertise to supplement their experts on technical matters on their Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards. That committee, points out Sheehan, is focused on safety issues.

p.daddona@theday.com

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