At 6 a.m. on a Sunday in late August, a security guard arrived at work for a 12-hour shift at the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant in Buchanan, 24 miles north of New York City.
The long day ahead didn’t faze him; he had worked 12-hour shifts before, and at least two previous posts on a Sunday.
Shortly before 2 p.m., the guard rotated to a post near an inner ring containing nuclear reactors and the spent fuel pool.
By 2:05 p.m., the guard had fallen asleep.
One of the four resident inspectors employed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and stationed at Indian Point—which satisfies as much as 40 percent of New York City’s energy needs—came cross the sleeping guard and talked to him, getting louder and louder for two straight minutes before finally waking him up.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared the guard’s behavior “unacceptable,” but never explained what happened except to publicly disclose the incident, and to report that the man (already close to retirement age) had no traces of alcohol or drugs in his bloodstream.
For its part, Entergy, the company that owns Indian Point, reiterated to its security staff the importance of remaining attentive.
It turns out that, in a society where millions swallow Ambien to get a decent night’s sleep, an unusually large number of security guards at nuclear power plants appear to have no trouble at all. Since 2004, the NRC estimates that roughly two dozen guards have been caught with their eyes closed in disconcertingly close proximity to a core reactor full of radioactive material.
In other words: While the rest of us sleep well at night thinking our nuclear power plants have guards watching over them, apparently some guards are sleeping equally as well. And while their somnolence doesn’t mean we’re in immediate danger, no one thinks it’s a particularly good idea for guards at power plants to be in deep REM cycle on the job.
In July of 2002, another guard at Indian Point was found “inattentive” (the term used by government investigators to describe dozing.) But the NRC did not issue a violation because there was no terrorist attack on the plant as a result, according to a Congressional audit. The same audit found that nationwide, the NRC tended not to issue formal citations and to minimize the significance of problems it found if the problems did not cause actual damage.
But there’s no denying the problem. A May 2003 newsletter from a division of the NRC states: “Media reports of security guards sleeping on the job at Indian Point nuclear power plant due to forced overtime and fatigue have received local coverage in New York.” In an Oct. 31, 2007 letter to Dale Klein, chairman of the NRC, a nonprofit watchdog group called the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) described the situation as a “nationwide phenomenon.” And the NRC itself has itself acknowledged the issue.
“For some reason, you’re right, there have been several that have occurred recently,” says Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC. “And there doesn’t seem to be any universal reason for that.”
Several recent incidents have added to a general sense the guards aren’t doing as much guarding as they should, given the extraordinary damage that would result from a security breach on the job.
In February 2007, the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Penn., reported on exhaustion of security officers working too much overtime at Three Mile Island (the scene of the infamous March 1979 accident that resulted in a partial core meltdown but no deaths or injuries). According to documents obtained by the newspaper, some guards have been working 13-hour shifts up to six days a week for more than six straight weeks. Last year, the paper reported that veteran officers were showing incoming guards the best places to sleep undetected while on duty.
In September, a frustrated security guard’s videotapes aired on WCBS-TV from inside Peach Bottom Nuclear Plant, near Philadelphia. The tapes showed 10 guards at different times of day in a “ready room” steps away from the plant’s two nuclear reactors, with their feet on their desks, heads resting against walls or cradled in their hands—all fast asleep. The NRC concluded that the level of security at Peach Bottom was “not significantly degraded as a result of these SO [security officer] performance issues.”
In October, the NRC “substantiated that security officers were willfully inattentive to duty or served as lookouts such that other security officers could be inattentive while on duty,” at Florida Power & Light, which owns Turkey Point nuclear power plant, near Homestead, Fla. Their investigation revealed that guards were sleeping on the job, or covering for sleeping colleagues, on a number of occasions from 2004 to 2008.
How does an epidemic like this start? Think about it. You are staring at a fence line from a guard tower. It is the ninth hour of your 12-hour shift. You are all alone, and job rules prohibit you from reading a magazine or doing a crossword puzzle. The fence gets blurry, you blink and your eyelids feel impossibly heavy…
“It’s an occupational hazard in some respects, you know?” says Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy, the company that operates Indian Point, of falling asleep across the security industry in general. “It’s hard to keep the mind stimulated.”
But Steets defends the strict work rules that may contribute to the problem. “One of the main elements of their responsibilities is to make observations, to know what’s going on around them,” he says. “The attentiveness to that would be diminished if they were to find themselves engrossed in a magazine or a book.”
Independent experts see a similar danger. “They were set up to almost die of boredom,” says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group that monitors environmental issues.
Steets argues that on-the-job boredom is not unique to the nuclear industry, but represents a necessary evil that comes with working security, whether in prisons or at Macy’s.
“I’d hate to be a security officer on the night shift at a big department store,” Steets says. “I’d be curled up under the counter the whole time, probably, with a nice soft pillow.”
To help guards stay awake, he says, Entergy moves them from post to post at regular intervals and teaches them techniques to proactively avoid falling asleep, such as getting up from their seats, stretching their legs and focusing in on their environment. However, the company doesn’t provide its workers with caffeine; guards must bring their own lattes and cans of Red Bull.
No one knows why the number of sleeping guards appears to be higher in the nuclear security arena than it is in other, similar, professions. Since the Peach Bottom problem surfaced, Lochbaum has queried people who work in the unions that supply the guard forces about what goes on in other industries, and has discovered that in prisons, where people are also up in towers, random radio checks are used to verify that guards are awake.
“Nobody’s claiming that a guard never fell asleep at a prison post, but apparently it occurs less frequently because of those kinds of things that have been learned over the years. For some reason those lessons from other industries aren’t trickling over into the nuclear industry,” says Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. It looks like they might have learned a lesson, albeit the hard way, at Peach Bottom, where the NRC spokesman says it has started doing more frequent radio checks.
But it’s important to note that the utilities have, and continue to be, accused by watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight of overworking their guards. If that’s the case, everyone who has ever tried and failed to pull an all-nighter knows that it takes more than average mental fortitude, combined with significant doses of caffeine, to stay awake for 12 hours straight when sleep deprived. Security guards at nuclear plants can work as much as 16 hours in any 24-hour period, 26 hours in any 48-hour period, and 72 hours in any 7-day period.
Because each additional officer cuts directly into the utilities’ bottom line, the utilities often hire as few security officers as possible and work them between 60 and 72 hours a week, POGO says.
“I have interviewed guys [who work] between 60 and 72 hours,” says Peter Stockton, a senior investigator at POGO, who has spent two years studying security at U.S. power plants. “I have got to tell you, they are a mess.”
The NRC is looking into reducing the hour limit that plant employees can work, to an average of 48 hours per week over a six-week period, but that change is not slated to take effect until March of 2008, says Sheehan.
With the presence of a National Guard base and numerous other security checkpoints there’s almost no danger of a meltdown because of a sleeping security guard. But for those who see dark scenarios – such as a truckful of terrorists ramming their way onto the Indian Point property and driving explosives directly into the core reactor—how quickly and thoroughly would that expose New York to dangerous doses of nuclear radiation?
If the wind is blowing our direction, expect 44,000 immediate fatalities from acute radiation positioning as far as 60 miles downwind of Indian Point, added to the 518,000 who would eventually die from cancer within 50 miles of Indian Point as a result of radiation exposures, according to a 2004 report commissioned by Riverkeeper, a Hudson River-based environmental group. And that’s not taking into account what would happen if terrorists blew up the spent fuel pools.
“Once the cesium—there’s a cladding around the spent fuel—catches on fire, you’re really in trouble,” says Peter Stockton of POGO. “At Indian Point, you’d take out about a third of Connecticut.”
A well-coordinated attack (timed to coincide with a highly unlikely total breakdown in security) would take somewhere between three and eight minutes from break-in to meltdown.
“These attacks are very very fast, and very very violent, if there is one. Let me tell you, there are explosions all over the place,” says Stockton, who has observed around 75 mock terrorist attacks used to test nuclear plant security, although none at Indian Point. “You’re running out and all of a sudden your buddy gets his head blown off, and these guys are through the fence line in about three seconds. They blow the fence apart and it’s generally 45 seconds to the target they’re going to. Man, you gotta be ready to go. And if you’re sleeping, it’s gonna take awhile.”