A pipe burst last October 10 at the Hope Creek plant and sent radioactive steam into a turbine room.
But the lack of a "safety-conscious work environment" is the most confounding problem at Hope Creek and the two other Salem reactors, according to federal regulators. They're investigating whether workers may fail to report potential danger because they fear retaliation by Public Service Enterprise Group management.
Christopher Bakken, president of PSEG Nuclear, acknowledged that the safety culture at the three reactors has historically been "chilled."
"We're making fragile progress," Bakken told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a December 2 hearing. "We certainly are not here to tell you everything is fixed."
Critics contend nuclear safety and the corporate bottom line are on a collision course at Hope Creek and Salem I and II in New Jersey's far southwestern corner.
When Exelon takes over operation of the three reactors on January 17 as part of its merger agreement with PSEG, the $15 billion-a-year corporation will have to make good on its reputation of fixing up nuclear plants. Critics charge that PSEG's management team perpetuates the chilled work environment by putting profits above safety.
Concerns about the plant's safety prompted the NRC, the federal agency that oversees the country's 103 commercial reactors, to schedule two hearings to discuss the restart of Hope Creek.
"It still appears that PSEG does the right thing only when there's significant external pressure," said Dr. Nancy Kymn Harvin. "Is the NRC true to its safety-first mission? Or is it a rubber stamp for the nuclear industry, as many people say it is?"
Harvin was in charge of organizational development at Hope Creek and Salem I and II before she was fired in March 2003, she said, for demanding action on employee safety concerns.
A PSEG spokesman said Harvin was let go "as part of a larger reorganization" that eliminated her position.
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