FirstEnergy Corp.'s decision to eliminate 205 salaried nuclear jobs in Ohio and Pennsylvania is indicative of belt-tightening that has occurred nationwide in the utility sector: Companies merge and find ways to operate more efficiently so they can keep their electricity prices down and weather competition in today's deregulated market.
But at what point do utilities cross the line and sacrifice safety?
That's a question the Nuclear Regulatory Commission first tried to address through an agency policy in 1982 and began wrestling with again five years ago at its headquarters in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md., in part because of concerns raised by U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn) and other congressmen in 1999.
"The fact that staffing has been reducing [nationwide] has not been lost on the NRC," David Desauliners, the agency's point man for worker fatigue issues, told The Blade.
The NRC officially has no authority to set minimum staffing requirements beyond those for a nuclear plant's control room - yet. Its sole mission is to ensure safety, irrespective of worker numbers.
But since 1999, it has been developing a rule for regulating worker fatigue under fitness-for-duty laws, the ones that companies use to frame their drug-and-alcohol policies. It is to be presented to the agency's governing board by December, 2005.
For years, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has had limits on the consecutive number of hours truck drivers can spend behind the wheel. The Federal Aviation Administration has limits on the consecutive number of hours that pilots can fly.
But officials acknowledge that nuclear plant employees may at times be subjected to unreasonable routines, leaving them too fatigued to be as sharp-minded as they should.
One goal of the new rule is to give them an outlet for being frank about when they're too tired to work, without facing repercussions.
The NRC's 1982 policy stated that workers should not be on the job more than 14 consecutive days or more than 12 hours at a time, for a maximum of 72 hours a week. But Mr. Dingell and others questioned how well that policy was being enforced.
"Fortunately, we have not seen fatigue as a causal factor in a number of significant events," said Mr. Desauliners, senior human factor specialist in the NRC's inspection program division. But, he conceded, "There may be cases where fatigue was involved, but the person wasn't aware of it."
Davis-Besse's recent two-year shutdown wore down many employees. Some workers claimed to have put in excess of 72 hours a week, for months.
An industrial psychologist the company hired to assess the plant's safety culture warned of burnout. Spouses in the fall of 2003 voiced anger at the NRC itself, accusing it of indirectly contributing to marital stress by failing to demand a more reasonable pace on the employees' behalf.
And throughout several key junctions, the NRC claimed the plant's severely corroded reactor head was a result of "missed opportunities" to fix the problem, long before acid had escaped from the reactor and melted the massive steel lid to the width of a pencil eraser, the thinness that it was found in 2002.
The NRC admittedly was guilty of a little too much budget-crunching itself. At the time, it had only one resident inspector assigned to the plant instead of the customary two. The agency had been in a temporary hiring freeze and, believing at the time that Davis-Besse had no problems, put its resources elsewhere. It now has three resident inspectors at Davis-Besse, the most found at any single-unit plant.
Davis-Besse's restart in March allowed workers to return to a more normal routine.
But last week, FirstEnergy announced 205 of some 2,700 jobs within its nuclear operating company were being eliminated. In addition to Davis-Besse, the utility operates the Perry nuclear plant east of Cleveland, the twin-unit Beaver Valley complex west of Pittsburgh, and the skeletal crew that oversees the dormant Three Mile Island-2 unit that had a partial meltdown in 1979.
Sixty-three of those lost jobs are at Davis-Besse, with 35 layoffs taking effect immediately and 28 more planned as various projects are finished.
The reductions, once completed, will bring Davis-Besse's workforce down to 740 employees.
Taken as a whole, the layoffs are one of the biggest jolts to staffing since retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joe Williams, Jr., took control of the reins during the plant's prolonged 1985-86 outage and went in the opposite direction, increasing the payroll from 644 employees in 1985 to 890 in 1986. Staffing might have exceeded 900 in the early to mid-1990s.
The numbers gradually receded to the low 800s and held steady there until recently, largely through attrition, Richard Wilkins, company spokesman, said.
In his notice to employees last Monday, Gary Leidich - FirstEnergy's nuclear operating company president - told them it's not a matter of how many workers the company has at each of its sites, but how well they perform.
One of the reasons FirstEnergy hired Mr. Leidich in 2002 from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an industry research arm, was to consolidate the company's nuclear division and streamline it in such a way that it would run more efficiently and effectively. The utility had been planning a massive reorganization to become more competitive before the reactor-head problem was revealed, Mr. Wilkins said.
David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer, said it's possible to downsize the workforce and get better results. "But if you work the [layoff] survivors too many hours, then you run the risk of them becoming fatigued," he said.
Mr. Lochbaum has participated in the rule-making process for the fatigue issue.
"The right way is to make yourself productive first. The wrong way is to make across-the-board cuts," he said. "If you make a mistake in applying resources, the consequences can be large."
Paul Gunter, reactor watchdog project director for the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, an activist group in Washington, said FirstEnergy's decision to lay off nearly 10 percent of its nuclear workforce in one shot "obviously has an impact on the worker morale."
"That, in fact, is a safety concern," he said. "It's this competition between profit margin and safety risk that got them into trouble in the first place and could get them in trouble again."
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.