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Staff cut corners at nuclear plant

Report to employees cites 'inappropriate behaviours'

Toronto Star - February 7, 2003
by John Spears

The push to restart the Pickering A nuclear generating station has led to "inappropriate behaviours" by plant staff, including pressuring an employee to submit a false inspection report, says a report to employees.

The presentation to staff at the station, run by provincially owned Ontario Power Generation Inc. (OPG), lists incidents management concedes could get OPG in trouble with the nuclear regulator.

OPG is under pressure to get Pickering back into service because the province needs more electricity-generating capacity during periods of high demand.

Pickering was supposed to be back in service last summer; now it's rushing to get one of the four units in service by June.

The employee presentation says the project is on schedule. But it also says the push to get the station going has prompted some staff to break rules or cut corners.

"Scheduling pressures are producing inappropriate behaviours," the message reads, and lists examples:

  • "In 2002, engineers were pressured to ignore the engineering change control procedures." These are rules that must be followed when engineering designs are changed, to make sure the changes are compatible with the over-all project and its standards.

  • "In 2002, an engineer signed an erroneous reconciliation statement for submission to the TSSA" (Technical Standards and Safety Authority). It regulates aspects of safety in a number of industries, including those such as nuclear plants that produce steam.

  • "This year, a QC (quality control) inspector was pressured to sign an inspection report when he had not completed the inspection."

One consequence of skirting rules is that work has to be re-done, the presentation says.

Another is that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, or CNSC, which licenses the plant, could delay the facility's start-up: "Obtaining final approval to restart Unit 4 will be delayed if the CNSC loses confidence in the quality of our work," says the presentation.

Unit 4 is the first of Pickering A's four reactors scheduled to restart; it's supposed to be in service by the end of June. The plant has been laid up since 1997.

OPG spokesperson John Earl downplayed the gravity of the incidents referred to in the staff bulletins.

He said they were raised in the context of regular staff safety meetings, which CNSC inspectors attend.

"We take safety very, very seriously," he said. "Where we can, we take inappropriate actions and use them as examples. "We try to look for real-life scenarios in terms of trying to make these opportunities for talking safety to the staff relevant."

Earl said some incidents are bound to crop up in a project the size of Pickering, but they're dealt with swiftly. "When you've got hundreds of people working on hundreds of jobs, you're going to have opportunities for the behaviours that we catch because of the processes we have in place to monitor," he said.

Restarting Pickering A was conceived in 1998 as an $800 million refit that would have the plant in service by 2000 but the start-up date has slipped continuously.

The official budget now is $2.5 billion but the Jan. 22 edition of Pickering News, a staff newsletter, acknowledges that "last year Pickering A was well over budget." Project management costs alone have soaked up 27 per cent of money spent to date, according to recent internal reports.

A recurring problem at Pickering is failure to document work when it is completed, according to other internal communiqués. Nuclear safety rules require that thousands of individual tasks must be inspected and documented before a facility can be licensed.

Pickering News acknowledges the documentation issue. It notes that an instrument that detects radioactive emissions was installed recently, but "while the field work was completed, the supporting paperwork was not. As a result, the start of commissioning has been delayed by a number of days."

In a letter to staff dated Jan. 27, senior vice-president Bill Robinson returns to the theme. Robinson took over at Pickering A last fall after the retirement of Eugene Preston, OPG's chief nuclear officer.

"Good work in the field is not being supported by quality documentation," he said. That means subsequent work can't proceed, creating backlogs.

The documentation issue also surfaces in the employee presentation listing "inappropriate behaviours." It contains a section labelled "our expectations."

The section includes not only standard items such as "work safely" and "follow procedures," it also reminds staff to "complete paperwork truthfully."

In a written response to questions, OPG maintained "there is a proper paper/documentation control process at Pickering" that is "well established and comprehensive."

Employees are encouraged to report any irregularities, OPG says, and the nuclear safety commission is kept "fully informed."

"OPG is confident in the truthfulness of the paperwork as the project is completed," the response says, and "when an issue is raised it is investigated thoroughly."

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