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Fallout over nuke guards sleeping on the job

Exelon Corp. said Friday it will use in-house security at its 10 nuclear power plants following the discovery that guards at a Pennsylvania plant were sleeping on the job.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Exelon Corp. said Friday it will replace Wackenhut Corp. with an in-house security force at its 10 nuclear power plants following the discovery earlier this year that guards at a Pennsylvania plant were sleeping on the job.

The announcement came 2 1/2 months after Exelon terminated its contract with Wackenhut at the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in south-central Pennsylvania after security officers were videotaped nodding off or dozing.

Exelon said it was acting even though a review of security at its other plants found "no significant deficiencies." The change is to be made by next July.

The Chicago-based company was under pressure to take the action following an uproar over the video and other alleged sleeping incidents.

On Thursday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission directed operators of commercial nuclear power plants to provide it new information about their security practices after reports of recent lapses.

"Based on our assessment, we have decided to directly manage our own security force to ensure the highest standards of excellence," Exelon Chief Nuclear Officer Charles Pardee said in a statement.

Exelon has 17 reactors at 10 plants nationwide, including plants in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The company said it notified Wackenhut officials of the decision on Dec. 3.

Nap-time caught on tape
Officials of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based Wackenhut have characterized the apparent lapses in attentiveness at Peach Bottom as "an anomaly."

"While we never welcome the loss of valued customers, we had forecasted that some existing business may be lost as we transitioned from the traditional labor-augmentation model to a solutions-focused platform working in partnership with our clients," Eric Wilson, president of Wackenhut's regulated security unit, said in a statement.

The security flap erupted after a guard who had previously complained to the NRC surreptitiously recorded a video in June of guards napping while sitting in chairs in the plant's "ready" room, a secure location within the plant. The video was obtained by a New York television station, WCBS, which aired it in September after bringing it to the attention of the nuclear commission and Exelon.

‘An Exelon decision’
Responding to Friday's announcement, the NRC called the move "an Exelon decision" and said it will be watching the security changeover closely.

The move prompted a mixture of reactions from those who have been pushing for changes.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., demanded more information about the incidents in a letter Friday to Wackenhut CEO Gary Sanders. Besides expressing concern about Wackenhut's handling of the Peach Bottom situation, he said appropriate steps must be taken to ensure similar problems do not occur at other power plants where the company handles security.

Peter Stockton of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based government watchdog group that has been following the situation, contended that firing the company doesn't eliminate the problem.

"We're no great fans of Wackenhut, let me tell you," said Stockton, a senior investigator at POGO. "However, we believe that Exelon was every bit as culpable in this as Wackenhut."

Union cries foul
He claimed that money had been budgeted to upgrade the room where the guards were filmed sleeping, in order to provide more stimulating environments to keep them awake, but that Exelon hadn't spent it as intended.

"There's a real problem with the licensees squeezing the amount of the money that the contractors can use," Stockton said.

The Service Employees International Union, meanwhile, congratulated Exelon for "doing the right thing."

"The blame here lies squarely with Wackenhut management," said Tom Balanoff, international vice president of SEIU, the nation's largest union of security officers. "Wackenhut's pattern of overworking and underpaying their security guards will no longer be the norm."