WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) — Florida Power & Light, one of the nation’s largest utilities, claims in a federal lawsuit that its ability to screen workers at its nuclear plants has been stifled by an industry trade group’s decision to cut off its access to a background-check database.
With a maintenance-related reactor shutdown at its St. Lucie nuclear plant scheduled to begin Feb. 7, Florida Power & Light says it will not be able to efficiently screen a ballooning staff due to the defendant Nuclear Energy Institute’s denial of access to the database.
Florida Power & Light says in its Feb. 2 lawsuit that its right to use the Personnel Access Data System (PADS) was revoked in retaliation for its parent company NextEra’s canceling its membership in the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The database includes information on workers’ criminal histories, psychological evaluations and drug-testing results.
Florida Power & Light claims it’s entitled to use the database under a 1995 agreement with the Institute, and that membership in the Institute is not a prerequisite to use the system. Co-plaintiff NextEra says it paid all the required assessments for the database, but that the Institute demanded an additional $860,000.
Without the ability to use PADS, nuclear plant operators are “forced to start from scratch in screening individual applicants for unescorted access, and they would do so without the benefit of consulting information already collected by other nuclear operators,” according to the 20-page complaint.
“Similarly, without universal industry participation in PADS, the database would become incomplete. This would result in additional manual screening efforts even for continuing PADS participants,” the lawsuit states.
Lack of access to the database will interfere with nuclear plant maintenance work, Florida Power & Light says, and the immediate effects can be seen in the temporary shutdown of the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant scheduled for Feb. 7, according to the complaint.
“As FPL will not have access to PADS in advance of that outage, it will be required to screen prospective personnel in a more time-consuming and expensive (and less efficient) manner,” FPL says.
During refueling and maintenance-related shutdowns, the number of employees at the St. Lucie plant can more than double, necessitating an efficient screening method, FPL says.
An FPL spokesperson said that the reactor outage is moving forward on time, as the company anticipated conflict with the Nuclear Energy Institute.
“We made full contingency plans as this evolved. We will proceed as scheduled,” the FPL media representative said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute responded to the lawsuit in an email to Courthouse News.
“In early January, NEI was notified that two nuclear companies would not renew their membership in NEI for 2018. … Good-faith efforts by NEI to resolve differences regarding continued access to certain NEI membership benefits have not been fruitful,” a spokesperson said.
Maria Korsnick, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a separate statement that NextEra lost its access to the PADS database when it canceled its membership. Nonetheless, she said, the Institute agreed to supply database information that NextEra needs to maintain compliance with federal regulations.
“That exchange has been accomplished and will continue throughout each work week,” Korsnick said in the statement.
Korsnick said the lawsuit includes “several inflammatory statements,” including the word “extortionate” to describe the Institute’s alleged demand for $860,000 to restore NextEra’s access to the database. The lawsuit’s allegations are “both counter-factual and offensive to the good-faith effort” the Institute made to work with NextEra, Korsnick said.
Plaintiffs include three other NextEra subsidiaries: NextEra Energy Duane Arnold LLC, NextEra Energy Point Beach LLC, and NextEra Energy Seabrook, which operate nuclear plants in Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, respectively.
They are represented by Joseph Ianno with Carlton Fields in West Palm Beach, with George Zimmerman of Skadden Arps in New York pending pro hac vice admission to the Florida court.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the sole defendant on counts of breach of contract, conversion, tortious interference, deceptive trade and unjust enrichment. Florida Power & Light seeks punitive damages.
Before NextEra canceled its NEI membership, they had been at odds over the Institute’s support of energy policies which NextEra says will distort pricing and competition.
NextEra specifically took issue with the Institute’s support of a federal plan to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants, which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected in January.
The Institute publicly advocated for the measure, saying it would prevent unnecessary retiring of functioning nuclear plants and improve long-term electrical grid resilience.
“The lawsuit complains about NEI policy positions and specifically raises objection to the work NEI did in support of (the Department of Energy’s) effort to preserve the domestic nuclear fleet,” Korsnick said in her statement.
“NEI has a rigorous process for gathering input from member companies to inform our policy positions, and on most issues does not advocate a position until it has been approved by members of the Executive Committee. NextEra may not have agreed with NEI’s effort to support the continued operation of existing plants, but our work was guided by the interests of our member companies.”