Asbury Park Press

Exelon, PSEG Put Bottom Line Before Safety Of Nuclear Plants

Asbury Park Press — Friday, August 18, 2006

BY NANCY KYMN
HARVIN RUTIGLIANO

Exelon and PSEG's "high-pressure tactics" backfired Aug. 4 when the state Board of Public Utilities voted that it was not ready to vote on the companies' merger proposal. Rightly so. The BPU deserves praise for not succumbing to the pressure by these big-muscle utilities.

PSEG and Exelon executives have shown their true colors with their bullying and ultimatums. This public display of unseemly leadership highlights what many have known all along – dollars are running the show, not the public interest. This is not the first time these utilities have resorted to what BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso called "high-pressure tactics." Just ask company employees.

According to recently released Nuclear Regulatory Commission transcripts of sworn interviews with PSEG employees, company leaders tried to intimidate them into putting profits before nuclear safety at the Salem and Hope Creek power plants. Both management and union workers reported they were often pressured to take "extraordinary action" in order to keep the nuclear reactors running and making money.

More than 25,000 pages of previously sealed government and company documents reveal evidence of "decisions driven by production over safety, "megawatt mentality,' non-conservative approaches (to nuclear safety decision-making) and/or schedule pressure," the NRC writes.

In addition, numerous employees reported that those who resisted this pressure often found themselves retaliated against, harassed or fired. Numerous Conscientious Employee Protection Act lawsuits are under way in New Jersey courts by former employees who say that PSEG and Exelon hid nuclear safety issues, falsified records, bypassed regulatory requirements and fired or "reorganized out" managers outspoken about nuclear safety and work environment conditions.

The NRC has substantiated most of these allegations. Salem and Hope Creek's safety culture is one of the weakest in the industry, still in need of improvements nearly three years after the nuclear safety issues became public. Unfortunately, the federal regulators have succumbed to PSEG and Exelon's pressure to allow the nuclear reactors to keep running despite vast deficiencies.

The NRC, especially in the Northeast region, has "gone soft" on its commitment to protect the health and safety of the public. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization focused on ensuring nuclear plants operate safely, has reported safety margins are continuing to erode because the NRC refuses to do its job, often knowingly turning a blind eye to safety systems, equipment and processes that do not work. The public can no longer count on the NRC.

The state Department of Environmental Protection and various lawmakers have also voiced their concern, calling for tougher oversight at the state's nuclear power plants.

Exelon took over management of the PSEG nuclear site in January 2005. The new executives promised to "do better." However, immediately and without review, nearly a dozen PSEG managers were fired, including one handpicked to assure the safety culture problems were fixed. Exelon executives had refused to follow a process designed to be a check against retaliatory firings. Employees were up in arms.

Proving its money-above-all-else approach, Exelon said its management contract with PSEG superseded the personnel review agreement with regulators. Terminated managers, remaining employees and safety advocates sought NRC intervention, but none came. The regulators later agreed both PSEG and Exelon erred, but no penalty for noncompliance was levied.

Despite all these issues, this merger that would create the country's largest utility company was considered by most a "done deal." Federal regulators continued to go easy on the utilities and rubber-stamped their agendas. Even the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers jumped on the merger bandwagon, despite a likely loss of jobs in New Jersey. Many on Wall Street predicted the merger would be finalized this month.

Public-interest groups, outspoken against the merger, were scoffed at for wasting their energy fighting a Goliath with deep pockets and political muscle. However, unlike the utilities and their supporters, these advocates are not fueled by money or power; they care only about the public good.

New Jersey Public Interest Research Group and New Jersey Citizen Action, along with others, spent more than a year conducting an education campaign about the merger's consumer impact, especially related to electricity prices, competition, safety and reliability. The advocates countered the utilities "spin" and revealed the downside of the merger proposal. These efforts turned the tide.

In recent weeks, the seemingly "done deal" began to unravel. Exelon and PSEG executives may have dealt the final blow to the merger when they issued an ultimatum to the BPU Aug. 2 to approve the merger. Let us hope so.

Yes, this merger deal is down to the wire. Exelon and PSEG have threatened to withdraw their proposal. They would be smart to do so, but that is not likely. These final days may be the most important. The public officials and people of New Jersey have what it takes: Stand firm. Resist PSEG and Exelon's self-serving merger proposal. Demand, instead, that the public good be served. Make your voice heard.

David will, once again, prevail against Goliath.

Nancy Kymn Harvin Rutigliano, Ocean City, is a former senior manager at PSEG Nuclear who made public the nuclear safety issues at the Salem and Hope Creek plants.

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