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Nuking-under-the-Influence: Booze, Drugs and Atomic Power

By Gar Smith
Thursday August 15, 2013 - 03:30:00 PM

On June 9, 1985, Ohio's Davis-Besse nuclear facility suffered a loss of feedwater coolant. The situation quickly grew desperate. As the water boiled away, the reactor core came within 41 minutes of becoming completely exposed and experiencing a meltdown. Although the coolant flow was reestablished after a tense, 12-minute lapse, the resulting damage was serious enough to shut the troubled reactor for a year.

The incident — dubbed "the worst accident since Three Mile Island" — drew the attention of the US House Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power. The subcommittee filed a report revealing that Davis-Besse had recorded 48 feedwater problems since July 1979 and 40 accidental reactor shutdowns between 1980 and 1985 owing to equipment failures and human error.

In an attempt to improve discipline at the plant, Davis-Besse's owners reached out to the military: they hired a former nuclear navy commander to serve as plant manager. This plan ran aground in dramatic fashion when the new manager showed up drunk during a Christmas holiday, began cursing his employees, and started throwing punches. Plant security had to be called in to drag him from the building.

For years, this singular incident has served as a salutary example of a seemingly self-evident truth: nuclear technology and alcohol are not a good mix. So it may come as a surprise to discover that, more than two decades on, alcoholism and drug abuse continue to haunt the nuclear power industry. 

As a matter of policy, the NRC routinely administers "fitness-for-duty" (FFD) tests to determine whether workers and supervisors are capable of performing their duties without impairment. Employees are tested on a random "lottery-style" basis and required to report to the on-site medical office for a Breathalizer or saliva test. If the initial examination is positive, the individual is then instructed to provide a urine sample. 

The NRC's threshold for alcohol testing is 0.04 blood-alcohol content. The NRC points out that this is much lower than the DUI limits for drivers in most states. 

In addition to weekly FFD tests, nuclear plant supervisors can also order workers to report to the medical office if they detect "aberrant behaviors." According to the NRC, supervisors are on the lookout for "a wide range of actions from staggering, making simple mistakes (such as turning the wrong switch), acting belligerent or out of character." 

Some may find it a bit alarming that "turning the wrong switch" is categorized as a "simple mistake." We are, after all, dealing the nuclear power plants. 

A 2011 NRC survey revealed that more than 8 percent of employees orderedto report to the medical station "for cause," subsequently tested positive for banned substances. This survey took notice of a "class" difference. Among employees of the plant owners, in more than half the cases, alcohol was the leading cause for action. Among the ranks of the employees of vendors and contract workers, however, more than half of the infractions were attributed to marijuana. 

But it's not just contract workers and plant employees who have been docked for being drunk or stoned on duty. The NRC's daily Event Notification Reports also record numerous occasions where plant supervisors also were disciplined, banned or dismissed for being under the influence.  

Of greatest concern, of course, is the sobriety and clear-headedness of the individuals in charge of actually operating the reactors. But, even here, the NRC's records provide substantial cause for alarm. 

On July 14, 2012, for instance, a reactor operator in the control room of Pennsylvania's Limerick Generating Station had his license revoked after being found "under the influence of alcohol." The NRC hastened to assure the public that the individual "was never the sole control room operator on duty." [Evan Brandt, Pottsdown Mercury, Sept. 26, 2012.] 

Although the alcohol was consumed "off-site," the NRC issued the individual a Severity Level III citation for behavior that "resulted in or could have resulted in moderate safety or security consequences" and could have left the individual incapable "for a relatively short period" of "preventing or mitigating a serious safety or security event." 

A press release from Exelon, the plant's owner, agreed that "performing licensed activities under the influence of alcohol is a serious matter" that can undermine the public's "special trust and confidence" in a nuclear power operator. To say the least. 

Nuclear Workers: Tipsy, Wasted, Sloshed, High and Smashed 

Here is a partial list of incidents— drawn from the NRC's own Event Notification Reports — that document cases of workers found "nuking under the influence" (NUI). 

May 2011: An operator at DTE Energy's Fermi 2 Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Michigan failed a random drug test and was banned from the plant. 

July 2011: A licensed plant operator at Limerick Nuclear Power Plant tests positive for alcohol. Banned from control room. 

August 2011: An un-licensed supervisor at Fermi 2 was disciplined for being besotted while on duty. 

October 2011: A non-licensed supervisor at the Watts Bar NPP in Tennessee was arrested for possession of a controlled substance "with the intent to distribute." His access to the plant was terminated. 

November 2011: Contract worker at Surry NPP in Virginia tests positive for alcohol. Access to site terminated. 

November 2011: Contract supervisor at Farley NPP in Alabama allows an "obviously impaired" worker to "go home and 'sleep it off'" rather than undergoing a "for-cause" FFD test. Both the supervisor and the worker subsequently "had their unescorted access to the protected area terminated." 

January 2012: Employee supervisor at Nine Mile Point NPP tests positive for alcohol. As a result, his "unescorted access has been administratively withdrawn." 

April 2012: Licensed operator at Kewaunee NPP in Wisconsin tests positive for alcohol. Plant access suspended. 

May 2012: Licensed plant operator at Point Beach NPP in Wisconsin fails "for cause" test after behavior suggests individual was under the influence of alcohol. Access to plant suspended. 

July 2012: Worker at Limerick NPP removed from site after being found under the influence of alcohol. 

July 2012: Supervisor at Georgia's Vogtle NPP tests positive for alcohol. 

August 2012: Supervisor at Michigan's Fermi NPP tests positive for alcohol. 

August 2012: Non-licensed supervisor at Quad Cities NPP in Illinois tests positive for alcohol. Access to plant terminated. 

August 2012: Licensed supervisor at Louisiana's Waterford NPP fails fitness tests. 

August 2012: Licensed "employee supervisor" tests positive for alcohol after he was observed "staggering and shouting bizarre orders in a slurred voice." 

September 2012: Supervisor at Mississippi's Grand Gulf NPP tests positive for drugs. 

September 2012: Supervisor at the Saint Lucie NPP in Florida tests positive for alcohol. Access to plant terminated. 

October 2012: Workers failed "for-cause" FFD tests at Sequoyah NPP in Tennessee (alcohol), Browns Ferry NPP in Alabama (chemical), Vermont Yankee NPP (chemical) and Harris NPP in North Carolina (unspecified). 

November 2012: A non-licensed contracted "acting supervisor" at Florida's Turkey Point NPP tested positive for alcohol. Access terminated. 

December 2012: Supervisor with access to both the Dresden and Braidwood NPPs in Illinois confirmed positive for the use of a "controlled substance." 

January 2013: Non-licensed contract supervisor at the Fort Calhoun NPP in Nebraska tested positive for a controlled substance. Unescorted access to site terminated. 

February 2013: Non-licensed supervisor at Clinton NPP in Illinois tests positive for alcohol. Restricted from plant. 

April 2013: Licensed supervisor at New York's Nine Mile Point NPP tests positive for alcohol. 

April 2013: While off duty, a licensed worker at Florida's Saint Lucie NPP arrested for possession of a controlled substance. 

April 2013: Employee supervisor at Limerick NPP in Pennsylvania tests positive for alcohol. Access to site restricted. 

April 2013: A supervisor at Exelon's Limerick Generating Station tests positive for alcohol and her access to the plant is restricted. 

April 2013: Licensed reactor operator at Grand Gulf NPP in Mississippi tests positive for illegal drugs. Access to GE Boiling Water Reactor site terminated. 

May 2013: An employee supervisor at the V. C. Sumner NNP in South Carolina is banned from the plant after testing positive for alcohol. 

May 2013: Licensed reactor operator at Grand Gulf NPP tests positive for alcohol. Access to plant terminated. 

May 2013: Contract supervisor at Fort Calhoun NPP has access to plant revoked after failing fitness test. 

May 2013: Supervisory employee at Wolf Creek NPP tests positive fo alcohol. Access to plant terminated. 

May 2013: Non-licensed supervisor at Limerick Nuclear Power Plant tests positive for alcohol. Access to plant revoked. 

May 2013: Workers at Minnesota's Monticello NPP discover an unsealed bottle of alcohol hidden under a desk in a Protected Area. The bottle was open and one-third empty. 

May 2013: Licensed reactor operator at Mississippi's Grand Gulf NPP confirmed positive for alcohol. Access to plant terminated. 

June 2013: A non-license contract supervisor at Turkey Point NNP is arrested off-site for possession of a controlled substance. Access to plant terminated. 

July 2013: Supervisor at the Pilgrim NPP in Massachusetts tests positive for a "banned substance." Access to plant terminated pending investigation. 

July 2013: A supervisor at the New Jersey's Oyster Creek NPP failed a random fitness for duty test and registered positive for alcohol. The employee’s access to the facility was restricted but not revoked. 

NUI Citations: A Proliferating Problem 

The NRC's 2011 review of its FFD program indicates that the drinks-and-drugs problem is widespread and growing. In 2011, the NRC administered 178,586 individual FFD tests (the largest number since 1993). According to the report, "marijuana, alcohol and cocaine continue to be the abuse substances of choice and accounted for 90 percent of positive results." 

The good news? The percentage of workers and supervisors testing positive was only slightly more than .5 percent of the total workforce. While the number of nuclear workers caught using marijuana and alcohol has been rising since 1990 (up 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively), the number of workers identified as cocaine users has been declining (down 17 percent). More troubling is the discovery that, during the three-year period of 2009-2011, positive tests for amphetamine use among nuclear workers rose 7.56 percent. 

The 2011 NRC survey reported only 70 positive tests for alcohol among thousands of nuclear plant employees tested nationwide. During the same year, however, nearly 500 contractor and vendor employees tested positive for marijuana. 

While it may appear reassuring that only a small number of the nation's nuclear power plant employees are actually failing on-site drug tests, this doesn't offset the chilling fact it only takes a moment for a single stoned, soused, buzzed (or just inattentive) employee to wreak disaster. As Dr. Edward Teller ("The Father of the Nuclear Bomb") famously observed back in the 1980s: "There's no system foolproof enough to defeat a sufficiently great fool." 

A classic, cautionary tale dates from 1975. In March of that year, a worker at Alabama’s Browns Ferry reactor complex tried using a candle to check for air leaks and wound up setting fire to the plant. The fire raged for 7.5 hours with two General Electric nuclear reactors operating at full power. One reactor went dangerously out of control, resulting in a 20 percent Core Damage Probability — i.e., a near-meltdown. The plant remained shut for two decades. 

The Brown's Ferry inferno provides a sobering reminder of what can go wrong when workers, contractors and supervisors start mixing drinks and drugs with nuclear fuel rods and super-heated steam. There's always a danger that the "morning after" hangover could come in the shape of a fallout cloud. 

Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and the author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green). 

Contact: Gar Smith, c/o Academic Publishing, Inc., PO Box 27, Berkeley, CA 94701.