Fission Stories #30: I Want My MTV

January 25, 2011 | 9:23 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

On October 20, 1986, the NRC staff ordered the owners of the Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear plants in Minnesota to explain why they permitted background music in their control rooms. The NRC, as early as February 1981, had gone on record, so to speak, against music and radios in the control room. The NRC feared that music might distract operators from their duties.

The previous year, on August 19, 1985, the plants’ owners told the NRC that radios had been removed from the control rooms. However, the NRC staff subsequently learned, or perhaps heard, that radios had returned to the control rooms. The operator’s union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, filed a grievance against the plant’s owners over the loss of music contending that the removal of the radios hurt the operators’ morale. An arbitrator ruled that the radios must be returned to the control room.

The plants’ owner appealed the October 1986 NRC staff order to the NRC Commissioners. On February 13, 1987, the NRC Commissioners directed the NRC staff to explain the health and safety basis for its wanting music silenced in the control rooms. The NRC’s Director of the Office of Inspection and Enforcement provided an affidavit dated March 6, 1987, describing the reasons for banning music. Although acknowledging that Monticello and Prairie Island were the top performing nuclear plants in that region of the country, the Director pointed out that the operators had not shown that the music was responsible for those superior results.

Based on this logic, the NRC again banished music from the control rooms.

According to the NRC’s Systematic Assessment of Licensee Performance (SALP) scores for Monticello, the operators were rated “Superior” for the three year period prior to the NRC’s radio ruling. After losing their music, the operators’ performance, again according to the NRC’s own data, dropped to a “Good” rating.

Our Takeaway

“Whistle While You Work” may be an option for Snow White, but apparently not for control room operators. We are not sure why the NRC made a federal case out of some background music when there was no evidence it was interfering with work. Maybe the NRC feared that the music was only a hop, skip, and jump away from the operators re-enacting the “When You’re a Jet” dance routine from West Side Story.

One might think that nuclear plant owners and the NRC would have far more important issues to allocate limited resources to than debating the merits of music in control rooms. One would be right.

“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.