Safety Meltdown

Dave Misbeek and Silvario Garcia are, by their own admission, anal-retentive guys. They thrive on detailed perfection. They know every letter of the law and follow those letters religiously.

They are the kind of guys you would hate to have running your homeowners' association.

But they are precisely the kind of guys you want overseeing safety at your local nuclear power plant, which just happens to be the largest of its kind in the United States.

Basically, it is Misbeek and Garcia's job to make sure the three nuclear reactors at Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station, about 50 miles west of downtown Phoenix, don't blow up and spew radiation on the three million residents of the Valley.

Palo Verde, they assure, is far from blowing up.

But something is clearly amiss.

In 2003, Palo Verde led the nation in the number of allegations made by its employees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal oversight agency for the nation's nuclear power plants. Of those 28 allegations to the NRC, six have been substantiated, giving the plant more substantiated allegations in 2003 than all but one of the 64 plants operating in the country.

Another 15 allegations remain under investigation by the NRC.

The 28 allegations center on two major topics:

• That certain critical departments within Palo Verde have such a dismal work environment, and that technicians are so overworked, that they don't report problems or find problems that might exist.

• That some repairs have been allowed to slide in recent years and that employees in critical safety departments at Palo Verde often fix problems without properly documenting those fixes, a crucial paperwork process that has been proven to prevent the kinds of small mistakes that historically have led to serious problems.

New Times reviewed hundreds of pages of allegations and supporting documentation along with detailed company and NRC documents. And while the material doesn't suggest Palo Verde is in imminent danger of disaster, it does portray a company that is slipping when it comes to maintaining critical levels of safety.

Critics say Palo Verde's slide is the result of the company's putting profits before safety and long-term reliability.

Moreover, Palo Verde supplies about 30 million megawatt-hours each year to the Western power grid, and critics are concerned that increasing problems with sloppy safety practices will compromise the plant's ability to stay online and provide a steady stream of affordable and reliable electricity.

In fact, New Times' review of safety allegations comes as Palo Verde is experiencing a series of leaks that have shut down parts of the generating system. On March 1, the NRC announced it had begun a special investigation to evaluate problems related to the station's recently replaced steam generators.

"The NRC staff has decided to conduct a special investigation to evaluate the adequacy of the licensee's response to the situation, the root cause, and corrective actions," the NRC said in a press release.

That report is expected to be completed sometime in April.

Federal officials are concerned about the number of allegations, although they dismiss most of the employees' concerns as minor.

"While the number of allegations brought by Palo Verde workers in 2003 to the NRC is high," Victor Dricks, the NRC's Region IV spokesperson, told New Times in a written response to questions about plant safety, "a thorough review of each of the allegations did not substantiate any significant safety issue at the site. However, the NRC is concerned about the number of allegations being brought by the Palo Verde workers."

The NRC has begun a widespread investigation to determine if Palo Verde still maintains, in industry parlance, "a safety-conscious work environment."

The wave of allegations, reported problems and leaks stands in troubling contrast to Palo Verde's exemplary safety and performance record over the last decade. Indeed, Palo Verde has been widely considered in the industry to be one of the safest, best run and most productive nuclear plants in the country.

However, some employees say the plant's high production has come on the backs of front-line employees. Over the last decade, the staff of Palo Verde has been cut from 2,800 to 2,000. During that same period, production costs dropped by one-third.

This has made Palo Verde a massive and reliable cash cow for Arizona Public Service Company and its parent company, Pinnacle West, who, along with other companies, own the plant. APS is the operator.

As Pinnacle West's other businesses have been buffeted by the floundering economy and other economic factors, the three nuclear generators at Palo Verde pump an estimated $3 million a day into company coffers.

More simply, Palo Verde is worth nearly $1 billion a year to the plant's owners when technicians and engineers can keep the thing running at full tilt.

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Robert Nelson