The debate over North Carolina’s energy future went critical last week with Progress Energy’s announcement that it’s chosen the Shearon Harris nuclear plant 20 miles southwest of Raleigh for possible reactor expansion. Noting the region’s growing demand for power, the company justified its choice by pointing to already-existing transmission lines, available cooling water from nearby Harris Lake and the Cape Fear River, and proximity to many customers.

“Selecting a site for possible nuclear generation expansion, first in North Carolina and later in Florida, is part of our planning process to ensure we have the energy our customers need in the future,” says Progress Chairman and CEO Bob McGehee. The company could apply for a construction license in late 2007 or early 2008, and work could begin as early as 2010 with the new reactor online in 2016.

Not surprisingly, nuclear critics protest Progress Energy’s decision. They point to general problems with nuclear power that would be magnified with the addition of another reactor: radioactive pollution from routine emissions, the risk of catastrophic releases due to accident or sabotage, and the lack of a long-term plan for storing spent fuel. Then there are the enormous public subsidies for the industry–$8 billion in the latest federal energy bill alone–that could be better spent developing less hazardous technologies. Critics also note that the reactor design selected by Progress–the Westinghouse AP1000–is new and still untested in the real world.

But nuclear watchdogs also have concerns about expanding Harris specifically because of the safety record at the plant, which houses one of the nation’s largest stockpiles of spent fuel.

“The existing Harris reactor is one of the most troubled in the U.S., with serious and ongoing reactor problems and at least three sets of security failures in recent years,” says Jim Warren of the Durham-based North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network.

Harris has had one of the nation’s worst records for sudden reactor shutdowns–at one point 10 times the national average–as well as meltdown risk from station blackout. Furthermore, the plant’s been out of compliance with federal fire safety regulations since at least the mid-1990s. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year released an inspection report that found many of the plant’s pumps, valves and electrical cables were unprotected from fire, the leading risk factor for meltdown. That was the seventh NRC inspection since 2002 to find Harris in violation of fire rules. Harris also depends more than most U.S. nuclear plants on a faulty fire barrier product called Hemyc.

Despite those serious safety problems, the NRC’s report card for nuclear plants–the “performance indicators summary”–gives Harris a green light on all measures. That’s because the NRC excludes fire regulations from its report card since noncompliance is so widespread, explains David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

“If a safety problem is discovered and affects Plant X, the NRC requires the owners to fix it, but if a problem affects plants A through Z, then the NRC says it will study the problem,” Lochbaum says. “It’s like hospital triage taking the guy with the splinter while the people suffering from the epidemic don’t get treated at all.”

Also excluded from the NRC’s report card is security, which has been causing headaches recently for Harris management.

N.C. WARN and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed a complaint in December with the NRC and other agencies based on guards’ reports of serious flaws in plant protection. They include widespread cheating on security certification exams, guards being forced to work injured, and chronically malfunctioning security doors. The problems follow two security violation incidents in the late 1990s where unauthorized persons were allowed into Progress plants. NRC officials visited Harris last month to explore the guards’ allegations and are “still in the process of reviewing results of their visit,” reports agency spokesperson Ken Clark. The NRC’s Inspector General also visited Harris recently as part of its probe into wrongdoing by the NRC, which allegedly was informed of guards’ security concerns but failed to act.

The Independent previously interviewed two anonymous guards from the plant, one who served as the main source for the N.C. WARN-UCS complaint and another who independently confirmed the complaint’s details. The guards are employed by Securitas Security Services USA, the U.S. subsidiary of Sweden-based Securitas, the world’s largest private security firm. Last week the paper spoke with a third guard who also confirmed the complaint; he too asked that his name be withheld to protect him from retaliation.

“It’s not the security force itself that’s the problem,” the guard says. “It’s the lack of upkeep on some of the doors and the fence monitoring system.”

And an official NRC document unearthed last week by UCS indicates inadequate upkeep on security doors goes back more than six years.

When Progress Energy (then known as Carolina Power & Light) sought NRC permission in the late 1990s to store more highly radioactive waste at Harris, four local governments–Orange and Durham counties, Chapel Hill and Carrboro–hired independent consultant Gordon Thompson to review the proposal. The Oxford-educated head of the Massachusetts-based Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Thompson had previously consulted for organizations including the World Bank and U.S. Department of Energy. On Oct. 20, 1999, he toured Harris’ fuel-handling building and, in a formal NRC deposition taken the next day, reported problems with many of the plant’s security doors:

“Did you see anything while you were on that tour that you thought was unsafe or that you were concerned about in any way?” asked an attorney for the utility.

“Yes,” Thompson answered.

Attorney: “And what was that?”

Thompson: “On repeated occasions, the security doors did not close naturally and had to be closed by a personnel. That was true on roughly a third of the doors we went through.”

The issue came up again later in the deposition.

Thompson: “Those doors didn’t close automatically as people went through, they had to be manually closed.”

Attorney: “And that was unsafe, in your opinion?”

Thompson: “I think that’s a poor practice for a security system.”

Attorney: “Unsafe?”

Thompson: “Security is an aspect of plant safety, yes.”

In each instance, the malfunctioning door was pulled shut by one of the CP&L employees present, Thompson stated. And when one door stayed open for a while, a “man with a machine gun”–presumably a guard–showed up, said Diane Curran, an attorney representing the local governments.

“I don’t think you should trivialize this point,” Thompson added. “I think it’s an example of poor housekeeping, and I hope it’s corrected.”

The plant’s malfunctioning doors reportedly have been corrected, with guards describing frenzied activity to make repairs before the NRC inspectors arrived at Harris. “Every door at the Harris Plant is secure,” says Progress spokesperson Julie Hans. However, one whistle-blowing guard tells the Independent that he discovered one security door still malfunctioning even after the NRC’s visit–but decided against reporting it to his bosses.

“I kept my mouth shut this time,” says the guard, who fears losing his job. “I want other people to start doing something about the problem.”