Armed guards’ allegations of security problems at the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant near Raleigh have sparked federal investigations into wrongdoing not only by plant owner Progress Energy and its security contractor but also into misconduct by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

NRC inspectors will visit the plant in southwestern Wake County this week looking into the anonymous guards’ charges of lax security and reprisals against those reporting vulnerabilities such as broken doors to vital areas, inoperable plant gates, falsified security records and widespread cheating on security certification exams. The guards’ allegations were detailed in a complaint filed last month by the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network of Durham and the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

Of the 19 individual allegations the NRC identified in the watchdog groups’ Dec. 13 complaint, at least five have been verified so far–including the fact that a Harris guard was fired on from the woods near the plant, N.C. WARN reports. The NRC also confirmed to the groups that it received earlier anonymous complaints similar to about half the allegations in their complaint.

At the same time, the NRC Office of Inspector General has launched its own investigation into Harris guards’ claims that problems reported to the NRC were not addressed promptly. Created by Congress in 1989, the NRC-OIG is an independent unit that conducts audits and investigations relating to NRC operations.

“We want to ensure the agency is doing its job,” says George Mulley, the NRC-OIG senior assistant for investigative operations in Washington.

The NRC is dispatching to the Harris plant a three-person inspection team that includes staff from the agency’s Atlanta office and its national headquarters in Washington. The inspectors will be at the facility throughout the week, examining equipment and records and interviewing employees, says Ken Clark, spokesperson for the agency’s Atlanta office.

“We’re looking for additional information in an attempt to substantiate concerns that have been raised,” Clark says.

Progress officials say they welcome the investigation. The company maintains that the Harris plant–one of the sites where it is considering expanding its nuclear operations–is now and always has been secure.

“We will cooperate fully and encourage any employee who has information or concerns about security at the Harris plant to bring those concerns directly to the NRC team,” says Progress spokesperson Julie Hans.

Representatives of the watchdog groups say they are heartened by the NRC’s relatively quick reaction.

“It’s a blink of the eye,” UCS nuclear safety expert David Lochbaum says of the 28 days it’s taken the agency to arrive at the plant. “There are safety issues the NRC still hasn’t resolved since the Carter presidency, so this is a good response from them.”

While the NRC investigation will concentrate on plant security, the NRC-OIG probe will take a different tack, looking at what the NRC knew, when, and what it did with the information. Both agencies protect the confidentiality of the people interviewed, Lochbaum says. That’s key in this case, because guards have alleged that Progress and its security contractor, Securitas Security Services USA, have threatened retaliation against those who speak out about problems.

After the watchdog groups filed their complaint, for example, guards say that Progress and Securitas began investigating the possible release of what’s known as “safeguards” information involving sensitive details about plant security.

But NRC officials have repeatedly assured N.C. WARN and UCS that the complaint did not include such information.

Sources familiar with working conditions at the plant have described an atmosphere of fear among security personnel, with guards scared of losing their jobs or being fined or arrested for sharing protected information. In response, N.C. WARN has posted to its Web site a message to Harris guards clarifying the nature of the probe. The guards are not under investigation, it notes, and neither is the release of safeguards information. “The investigators are coming to Harris to gain information that might help further confirm or deny the allegations of company and/or NRC misconduct,” the notice says. “We urge you to help them do their jobs regarding these serious issues.”

The NRC-OIG is currently working with N.C. WARN and UCS to contact Harris guards who’ve raised concerns about plant security. But if the NRC-OIG is unable to reach whistleblowers through the watchdogs, it may have to interview all of the Harris guards, Mulley says.

It’s unclear how long the investigations might take, but the NRC process is usually “fairly quick,” Lochbaum reports. When security concerns were raised last year about a New York nuclear plant, for example, the complainants heard back on the allegations in about three weeks, he says. But if the agency begins substantiating allegations, the probe could take longer.

Once the NRC investigation is complete, the public may never learn many details about the agency’s findings. “There will eventually be notification of the agency because of the public interest as to whether we were able to substantiate the concerns,” says NRC’s Clark. “But we won’t report specifics of security vulnerability.”

The NRC-OIG will also report its findings. If it documents problems with the agency’s processes, that information will be made public. But if it uncovers problems involving individual NRC inspectors, that information would not be released publicly–though the documents could be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act with names redacted, says NRC-OIG’s Mulley.

Meanwhile, the watchdog groups are concerned about state Attorney General Roy Cooper’s decision to pass the complaint filed with his office to the N.C. Private Protective Services Board, which licenses the approximately 250 private security firms operating in the state. The attorney general oversees the board, which in turn is responsible for overseeing security certification exams. The complaint alleges that Securitas and Progress “tries to force” guards to cheat on the annual state certification exam required by the Private Protective Services Board. When guards have taken past exams, which Securitas designs and administers itself at the plant site, Securitas allegedly provided answer keys. The guards “believe the cheating is forced because Securitas is short on guards and cannot afford to lose anyone who might fail the exam,” the complaint states.

By passing the complaint to the regulating agency, Cooper has made it difficult for guards to speak freely about the allegations. That’s because unlike the NRC and NRC-OIG, the board cannot protect guards’ identities.

If the board finds that Securitas has violated the licensing statute, the company would face administrative rather than criminal sanctions. Those include license suspension or revocation and civil fines. However, the company would first be entitled to a hearing through the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings–and for the board to impose sanctions, the witnesses must testify.

“That’s a problem we run into under administrative law,” says board Director Wayne Woodard. “If someone gives a statement, we can’t keep that information private.”

N.C. WARN has asked Cooper’s office to take a more proactive role in the investigation and to ensure that “ridiculous Catch-22s” like Woodard describes don’t get in the way of finding the truth, says Executive Director Jim Warren.

“With some of the allegations already verified, the question is what is being done to correct these very serious security problems?” Warren asks.