Asleep On The Job: A Wakeup Call

Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
There are not many good excuses for sleeping on the job. Even fewer if you happen to be a tactically-trained security guards; the first responders if a terrorist breaks into a nuclear facility. Public lives are quite literally in their hands.

Yet according to the security forces themselves, there is routine sleeping on the job at more than one of the nation's nuclear power plants.

The case of the napping guards at Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania is the topic of our story tonight on the CBS Evening News. It might have never amounted to a story at all, but for a tenacious guard who, after being rebuffed by his own supervisors and feeling rebuffed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that's supposed to care, recorded his fellow sleeping guards over a period of months.

If not for the video evidence ... the video embarrassment ... the NRC, the plant's owner and the security company, Wackenhut, would likely have all just written off the claims as unsubstantiated. After all, according to three sources we spoke to, sleeping is part of an accepted culture at Wackenhut: nobody is really looking to catch anyone in the act.

Today we learned that NRC investigators have substantiated similar claims of sleeping Wackenhut guards at Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Florida. According to the NRC, not only were multiple guards found "inattentive", but there were also guards acting as "lookouts" for their sleeping co-workers.

You might feel angry when you see the videotape of the Peach Bottom guards snoozing on the job. But, in their defense, sources tell us they are required to perform unrealistic guard duty.

Although the companies involved deny it, sources have told us that the hours can be way too long, and that the "ready rooms" where the guards are supposed to stay alert are sometimes set up for failure: there's nothing to do, nothing to keep the guards stimulated and alert; the temperature is warm, and they're working odd hours. One source in a position to know says Wackenhut has received "hundreds" of complaints from the guards about these conditions, but they have not been corrected.

Wackenhut, for its part says it's instituted corrective actions and is certain that conditions are safe at all the nuclear plants it still guards.

Things may finally be changing, at least at Peach Bottom. When the sleeping guard videotape recently became public, airing on our local CBS station in New York WCBS, the nuclear plant fired Wackenhut. Suddenly the NRC sprang into action, sending an investigative team to Peach Bottom.

Strangely enough, the NRC appears to be pursuing an investigation of the guard who recorded the videotape. They say he shouldn't have used a camera to record security matters. (He argues he didn't record anything sensitive, and that without the video evidence nothing was being done and lives were being put at risk).

That guard is also without a job. Although Peach Bottom has hired some of the former Wackenhut guards for its new security force, the guard behind the camera got a letter this week saying he doesn't meet the selection criteria for the job.

The guard told me he knows he did the right thing. But you have to wonder about the chilling effect when the NRC investigates the guy who, in essence, saved the day. He ends up under a cloud, and without a job.

Wackenhut still guards 29 other nuclear plants, as well as sensitive government nuclear facilities: all overseen by the same NRC that's investigating the whistleblower at Peach Bottom.

The case of the sleeping guards at Peach Bottom may be a wakeup call.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.