Hiring freeze won’t affect VY security

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BRATTLEBORO -- Even though Entergy Corp. has enacted a company-wide hiring freeze, that freeze doesn’t affect "business critical positions" at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, according to an Entergy spokesman in New Orleans.

"Entergy Nuclear is hiring where it deems it necessary to ensure its fleet remains safe and reliable and productive," said Rob Williams, spokesman for Vermont Yankee.

Entergy has about 14,700 employees around the country.

It announced the hiring freeze after it experienced a 16-percent drop in net income for the second quarter of 2009. Entergy’s net profits dropped because there was a reduced power demand due to milder-than-expected summer weather.

"In response to ongoing economic pressures, we have launched a series of targeted actions to stabilize the company’s operating expenses without affecting employee pay, benefits or job security," stated Entergy spokesman Chanel Lagarde, in a press release announcing the hiring freeze.

In the past 18 months, Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has increased its workforce from about 520 employees to 636, said Williams.

While some of those positions were in engineering, operations and maintenance, he said, most of the new positions were for security personnel, who were hired away from Wackenhut, Yankee’s former security contractor.

The number of security officers at Yankee is classified information.

Yankee’s director of communications, Larry Smith, would not release the number of new hires that were not security related because that would also reveal the number of security officers.

Entergy’s hiring freeze is system-wide, said Alex Schott, an Entergy spokesman located in New Orleans, "But there are business critical positions that would get waivers."

Those positions are related to safety, reliability or customer service, he said, which might be jeopardized if those jobs were left vacant.

"We’re not going to compromise those elements of our core business functions," said Schott.

Increasing its staffing levels is a major issue of importance at Yankee, said Williams.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a series of indicators it monitors to determine if staffing levels are affecting plant safety and reliability, said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC.

"If we identify any declines in performance through that process, we would step up our level of engagement with the plant’s operator," said Sheehan. "We’re confident that impacts resulting from changes in the workforce would manifest themselves and be captured by our existing reviews."

As an example, said Sheehan, if engineering staff is reduced to the point where equipment is suffering breakdowns, that can affect a plant performance indicator.

That can lead to increased oversight as part of the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Program.

The NRC does not track specific workforce levels at each facility.

"There are only two areas in which the NRC mandates certain staffing levels -- control room operators and the plant’s security force," said Sheehan.

Just the same, said Sheehan, NRC managers interact with plant management on a fairly regular basis and have a good awareness of changes being implemented.

There are five licensed operators in the control room for every shift, said Smith.

In the summer of 2008, an audit of the plant’s reliability was conducted on behalf of the Vermont Legislature, which is reviewing whether Yankee should be allowed to operate past its current license expiration date of 2012.

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Entergy has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend the operating license of Yankee for another 20 years, from 2012 to 2032. In addition to NRC approval, Entergy must also receive a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board and the OK from the Vermont Legislature.

As part of the audit process, the Legislature appointed a public oversight panel to review the audit report.

A member of the oversight panel, Arnie Gundersen, told the Public Service Board in March that though it may be possible for Yankee to operate for an additional 20 years as long as it complies with conditions identified in the audit, "cultural obstacles and corporate mindset" might stand in the way of significant changes.

One of the most critical cultural areas Gundersen was concerned with was staffing levels.

According to the audit, he said, 85 percent of the plants auxiliary operations, 86 percent of its instrumentation and control engineers and 57 percent of its electrical staff have worked at Yankee for three years or less.

In 2008, Yankee’s engineering department had a 40 percent turnover in one year alone, said Gundersen. Those turnovers challenge Entergy’s ability to operate the plant safely and reliably, he said.

"This should be a major concern to all of us because aging engineers and key retirements mean that tribal knowledge of how ENVY was built and is operated is being lost," said Gundersen.

Entergy told the panel during its review process that it "deliberately understaffed the plant because it does not get extra improvement in performance compared to the cost of hiring a larger staff," stated Gundersen.

At the time the audit was conducted, Gundersen told the Reformer on Wednesday, it was short staffed by 40 employees.

As of this time, it’s short by 12 employees, he said.

A nuclear engineer who assisted with the start up of Yankee in 1972 said numbers can be misleading.

"If this is a mixture of new and replacement personnel, and many have come from other nuclear power plants, then it is not too significant," said Howard Shaffer.

The only jobs that are really VY specific to an important degree are the licensed operators, he said.

"Others who have worked in other nuclear power plants will learn the differences in their required new employee training," said Shaffer.

The president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 300, which represents some of the employees at the plant, George Clain, said Yankee has made a commitment to bring the staffing levels up.

"They have lived up to that commitment," he said.

Clain said the increase is due to new hires, not replacements because of high turnover.

"The union has been working with the company to insure our new members will be fully trained in their work disciplines," said Clain.

Clain also gave high marks to Yankee for the comprehensive nature of its training programs and to new site vice president Michael Colomb.

"He is willing to listen to the union," said Clain. "A welcome change to say the least."

But a spokesman for Citizen Awareness Network, which opposes the relicensing of Yankee, wonders if Entergy to be trusted.

"It takes years to get qualified people up to speed in a nuke plant," said Bob Stannard. "Who are the people they’ve hired and what are the jobs that have been filled? Are they seasoned employees or college kids?"

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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