A watchdog group is accusing the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of ignoring for nearly six months allegations that security guards at a nuclear power plant routinely slept while on duty.
The NRC announced a special investigation Sept. 20 into security problems at the Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania after a videotape became public of guards napping in a "ready" room. Last Monday, Exelon Corp., owner of the plant, fired the Wackenhut Corp., which provided its security.
The NRC's resident inspector at the plant received a letter last March that outlined in detail allegations about guards sleeping while on duty, according to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a Washington-based vigilance group.
The letter, sent by an intermediary on behalf of a number of guards, said 15-minute "power naps" were routine, and the napping problem went beyond the ready room. It said guards often had to wake up sleeping colleagues manning critical bulletproof watch towers.
It said guards were reluctant to tell investigators about the sleeping in fear of reprisals, and it urged the NRC to conduct a covert operation - perhaps place undercover investigators into the guard force or use surveillance cameras - to get proof of guards' sleeping.
A copy of the unsigned letter was made available Friday by POGO and confirmed by NRC officials.
"The NRC was informed. They were told exactly what the problem was and had suggestions on how to prove it, and nothing was done," said Peter Stockton, a senior investigator at POGO.
NRC officials acknowledged Friday that one of the two resident NRC inspectors at the Peach Bottom plant had received a letter in March outlining allegations of guards sleeping.
"We did receive that letter, and we did follow up on the concerns raised in the letter," said Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for the NRC's regional office with authority over the plant. However, she said, "Based on the information that was provided, we were unable to substantiate the concerns."
She said no written response was sent to the letter's author because he had asked not to be contacted, although she said the NRC knew his identity.
Stockton said the letter was written by a former Peach Bottom worker who had been asked by a number of security guards to make the sleeping incidents known to the NRC because they feared if they took action themselves they would be retaliated against.
With no action being taken, a guard decided to take a different approach and in June surreptitiously recorded a video of guards napping while sitting in chairs in the plant's "ready" room. The video was obtained recently by a New York City television station which brought it to the attention of the NRC and Exelon before it was broadcast earlier this week.
But Danielle Bryan, president of POGO, questioned in a letter to NRC Chairman Dale Klein on Friday why the NRC had not taken action much earlier, citing the March letter to the NRC resident inspector.
An NRC spokesman said the agency had not yet received the POGO letter and had no immediate response to it.
Bryan also suggested that neither regional officials nor plant resident inspectors be involved in the NRC investigation and that they "should be the target" of an internal NRC review because of their inaction following the March letter.
The letter, confirmed by the NRC, describes an orchestrated routine of guards taking naps and covering for each other including guards manning bullet-resistant watch towers that are critical to the plant's defense against a possible terrorist attack.
"Since the security towers ... went into use, security officers have been sleeping on duty at an alarming rate," said the letter. "... Due to fatigue, officers take power naps that last 10 to 15 minutes or longer, depending on radio transmissions."
In the watch towers some of the guard officers "have to wake the sleeping officers up and (they) feel they are becoming part of a cover-up by not reporting these incidents," the writer alleged.
He said a fear of retaliation prevented the guards from reporting the problem to plant managers or the NRC. "They (the guards) know the NRC and licensee operate and feel no one wants to really find out if anyone is sleeping," the letter said.
In announcing last week that Wackenhut's contract at Peach Bottom was being ended, Exelon executive Chris Crane emphasized that guards' sleeping on the job "is not acceptable and we will not tolerate it." However, he maintained, the incidents in the ready room did not affect plant safety or security.