Just weeks after federal investigators confirmed that armed guards were encouraged to cheat on qualifying tests at Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris nuclear power plant, a local congressman requested a government probe into long-standing fire safety concerns at the Wake County facility and other U.S. reactors.

The developments deliver fresh blows to Progress’ reputation, bruised in recent years by charges of security and safety problems at the plant, which houses one of the nation’s largest stockpiles of spent fuel. The matters will be discussed at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s annual safety review of Harris, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23 at New Horizons Fellowship, 820 E. Williams St., Apex.

“A root cause of the problems appears to be the company’s cost-cutting management culture,” says Jim Warren, director of the Durham-based N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network and an outspoken Progress critic. “Cutting corners at a nuclear power plant is a dangerous practice.”

On April 13, the NRC sent a letter to Harris Vice President Robert Duncan II, informing him that agency investigators looking into charges of widespread cheating by guards on qualifying exams turned up three supervisors who admitted to providing answers. The cheating allegations were originally made in a security complaint filed with the NRC and state regulators in December 2005 by N.C. WARN and the Union of Concerned Scientists; it was based on the accounts of a whistle-blowing Harris guard who turned to the groups for help after the agency reportedly ignored his concerns. His name is being withheld to protect him from retaliation.

Because of the cheating, NRC investigators said, “numerous security officers were not tested or qualified as required.” The guards as well as the supervisors in question are employees of Securitas Security Services USA, which protects the plant under contract with Progress.

One supervisor admitted to providing answer keys for both the annual written and computer-based requalification tests. Another confessed to coaching guards on those tests, even “rewording questions to give [them] the correct answer,” according to an investigative report briefly posted to the NRC’s Web site but later removed due to personnel privacy concerns. A third supervisor acknowledged providing answers to the computer test for between six and eight guards.

Guards say the cheating was encouraged to keep Securitas from losing trained employees. The frontline security staff at Harris suffers from high turnover, with guards reporting that last year’s rate averaged about 40 percent. Due to resulting staff shortfalls, a guard’s typical workweek runs 60 hours and sometimes more than 72one of the issues that led Harris guards to unionize last year with the Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America.

The individual supervisors involved in the cheating are “no longer employed as part of the Harris security force,” says Progress spokesperson Julie Hans. In addition, all of the guards were retested.

The NRC is considering what action it will take against Progress, who as the agency’s licensee is responsible for the integrity of qualifying exams. Because investigators found that the violations were willful, the company faces the possibility of escalated enforcement action, including civil penalties. A final decision is expected this summer.

“We allow the individuals and/or organizations the opportunity to present their side of the story,” says NRC spokesperson Roger Hannah. “Our enforcement staff look at the information we have, the information the licensee may have presented, and then decide if violations were committed and what action may be appropriate.”

In March 2006, the NRC issued an interim report on the security complaint that confirmed a number of the whistle-blowing guard’s other allegations, including security doors leading to the plant’s vital areas left malfunctioning for months. Last October, the N.C. Private Protective Services Boarda division of the state Attorney General’s officefound that Harris guards received handgun training from improperly certified instructors. PPSB also determined that guards were recertified without a required annual refresher course, and raised questions about the adequacy of their training in critical areas including gun use and contraband detection. The agency reprimanded the instructors, fined Securitas and is revisiting an agreement giving nuclear utilities broad control over firearms training.

The NRC’s latest findings of security problems at Harris come amid heightened concerns about nuclear plant security elsewhere in the nation. An article in the June issue of Esquire magazine titled “Mercenary” details how the security manager at Entergy’s Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan fabricated his background, experience and security credentialsclaiming falsely to have been a secret government assassin, among other things. The employee has since resigned.

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to NRC Chairman Dale Klein expressing concern about what the Palisades incident “portends for the adequacy of the process for vetting for vetting and granting clearances to … individuals employed at nuclear reactors.” Markey, a member of the Energy and Commerce and Homeland Security committees, asked whether the NRC or Entergy considered that the former employee could pose a danger since he “now possesses sensitive information regarding the operation of nuclear power plants.”

Harris guards have expressed similar fears. They say that by allowing problems at the plant to fester until people get fired and tolerating situations leading to high turnover among security staff, Progress, Securitas and the NRC are ultimately allowing the plant’s secrets to get out, potentially putting guards and the public in danger.

Meanwhile, elected officials from the Triangle are drawing renewed attention to longstanding fire safety concerns at Harris. Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) asked the Government Accountability OfficeCongress’ investigative armto review the NRC’s enforcement of fire safety rules at Harris and other nuclear plants. Price made his request after an April meeting with concerned officials from six local governments in and near his district.

That meeting was inspired by a public forum on Harris fire safety convened in March by state Sens. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange) and Janet Cowell (D-Wake). When representatives of neither the NRC nor Progress attended to address citizens’ concerns, local officials turned to Price for help in getting answers. They included Carrboro Alderman Dan Coleman, Hillsborough Commissioner Mike Gering, Chapel Hill Town Council Member Mark Kleinschmidt, Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson, Chatham County Commissioner Tom Vanderbeck and Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller.

“We’re very glad Congressman Price has undertaken this critical first step,” says Coleman. “The NRC for a long time has been very easy on the industry it regulates.”

After a fire led to a near-meltdown of Alabama’s Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in 1975, the NRC developed rules designed to present similar disasters. While many nukes have failed to comply fully, Harris ranks among the nation’s worst for two violations: the use of failure-prone barriers to protect cables and reliance on untested stopgap measures in case of fire. The plant has experienced at least four blazes since opening in 1987, with a major electrical fire in 1988 taking three hours to quell.

The NRC is currently exercising its enforcement discretion to exempt Harris and other fire-rule violators from sanctions until 2015. It’s also considering allowing offenders to transition to a “risk-based” system in which plants would calculate fire threats for different areas and selectively upgrade protectionsan approach that some nuclear experts have criticized since fires behave unpredictably.

Last year, five watchdog groups including N.C. WARN and UCS filed an emergency petition asking NRC to close Harris until it comes into full compliance with current fire safety regulations or impose the maximum fine of $130,000 per violation per day. The NRC is still reviewing the petition. Progress maintains that the plant is safe.

Citing concerns among stakeholder groups in his district, which includes the Harris plant, Price asked GAO to examine the frequency and causes of fire emergencies at U.S. nuclear power plants, the adequacy and acceptable duration of interim compensatory measures, and whether the shift to risk-based standards has led to an over-reliance on such measures during the transition period. GAO reports can take as long as a year to complete.

“Cheating on exams and not following fire protection rules seems to be just fine with the NRC,” says UCS nuclear safety expert David Lochbaum. “But the NRC’s indifference to the safety and security shenanigans at Shearon Harris may someday harm thousands of innocent North Carolinians when the current streak of luck runs out.”