Chicago Tribune



By Peter Kendall
Tribune Environment Writer
November 6, 1999

Federal regulators slapped Commonwealth Edison with a $110,000 fine Friday after finding that the utility retaliated against an employee who pointed out safety problems at the now-shuttered Zion nuclear power station.

In 1997, a senior reactor operator recommended that a pump at the plant be taken off line because it had an oil leak and also questioned the performance of a generator needed in emergencies.

For that, the operator had his performance grade lowered and was deferred from participating in a program that could have qualified him for a promotion, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined.

The charges by the employee were among a number of allegations that sprang up in 1997, when the Zion plant was in a downward spiral of poor performance, abysmal worker morale and lax attention to safety matters.

Even though the utility closed Zion in 1998, overhauled its nuclear operations and changed top management, ComEd officials stood by the action it took two years ago.

"Our investigation was thorough and comprehensive, and we did not find that the supervisor acted inappropriately or with discrimination," said Don Kirchoffner, a ComEd spokesman. "We are disappointed and disagree with the decision."

Kirchoffner said the company had not decided whether it would appeal the fine.

During the NRC's investigation, ComEd officials had argued that they had legitimate reasons for taking action against the employee, who the utility said showed "performance weaknesses," according to a violation letter sent to ComEd on Friday.

"The NRC does not agree with ComEd that the (operator's) handling of these safety-related concerns demonstrates the performance weaknesses asserted by ComEd," the letter said.

Both the supervisor and the operator still work for ComEd and are in good standing, Kirchoffner said. The supervisor remains on the skeleton staff still manning the closed Zion plant and the operator has transferred to another division in the company. Neither the NRC nor the company would identify either of the employees.

The fine was the first levied against ComEd this year. Other allegations raised in 1997 by Zion workers are still pending before the NRC.