Back in the 1970s, Virginia Electric & Power Co. was a mess. Its corporate culture was insular and hostile to public input. Its troubled nuclear reactors at North Anna and Surry had major design and safety problems. Their constant outages and big fines brought on the wary eyes of Wall Street.
Back in the summer of 1979, I was a 26-year-old reporter at The Virginian-Pilot, which then had a different attitude about expending resources for investigative reporting. They put another reporter and me up for about a month in the Washington area so we could pore over files at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was tough work and the material was hard to understand. But we muddled through and on Aug. 12, 1979 ran a front page report, “Accidents, Violations Plague Vepco’s Plants.”
The essence: “The files of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission show that Vepco has been cited repeatedly for withholding information or providing misleading information, for weaknesses in its security system, for design and construction inadequacies at Surry and North Anna, for for failure to follow required procedures to protect employees from radiation.”
At the time, Vepco had been fined more than any other nuclear utility in the country by the NRC. The biggest single fines then had been against Vepco.
Enter Jack. H. Ferguson. After a year or so after our story ran, Vepco hired Ferguson who had grown up on a Colorado farm and had done poorly in school. Eventually he earned a mechanical engineering degree and had worked with such engineering powerhouses as General Electric and Westinghouse. The Navy veteran of the Korean War was hired as a ringer to help pull Vepco out of its morass.
Not only were its nukes all screwed up, it had shifted some of its electricity production to oil since Virginia was blessed with coastal import facilities. It happened just as the Arab Oil embargo erupted in 1973-74 sending Vepco fleeing to coal. It didn’t run many of its plants well and had a venomous inner culture that was by turns macho, Nuke Navy and anti-public. Outside comment on any issue be it a power line or a malfunctioning nuclear reactor was seen as a security threat that might be directed by the international Communism movement.
Ferguson changed all of that. He broke down the Old Boy culture and ruled by engineering — “it runs or it don’t and if it don’t, fix it.” His attitude towards the public was a lot more open Westerner (he was once a cowboy) than “us against them” retiree of the Silent Service of the Navy nuclear submarine fleet. Ferguson’s approached worked. Vepco, which changed its named to Dominion, became a much more efficient and professional company. It still has its problems, to be sure, but nothing on the level of the 1960s and 1970s.
This is a credit to former Virginia Power President Ferguson, who died at his home in Richmond Nov. 26 at age 82.