Two Triangle legislators convened a public meeting last week about the ongoing failure of Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris nuclear power plant to comply with federal fire safety regulations.

The gathering at Fearrington Village near Pittsboro came six months after watchdog groups filed an emergency petition with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking that the agency close Harris until it comes into full compliance, or impose the maximum fine of $130,000 per violation per day. The NRC is reviewing the petition but has not taken action to force the facility into compliance.

“Having a nuclear power plant in our backyard requires attention and vigilance from many segments of our community,” said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange). She convened the meeting with Sen. Janet Cowell (D-Wake), who did not attend due to a scheduling conflict. “I’m concerned that the federal government’s oversight is being challenged.”

The forum took place March 22, the 32nd anniversary of a conflagration at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama. In that incident, an employee using a burning candle to detect air leaks ignited the plant’s electrical cables. The blaze disabled many safety systems and almost led to a meltdown.

After that near-disaster, the NRC developed new fire-prevention rules. While noncompliance is a problem throughout the U.S. nuclear power industry, Harris ranks among the nation’s worst for two violations: use of failure-prone barrier materials to protect cables and reliance on untested stopgap measures called “operator manual actions.”

The NRC is using its enforcement discretion to exempt Harris and other violators from sanctions until 2015. The agency is also considering allowing offenders to transition to a “risk-based” system in which plants would calculate the fire threat for different areas and selectively upgrade protectionsan approach watchdogs criticize as “faith-based” since flames behave so unpredictably.

Concerns about fire at Harriswhich houses one of the nation’s largest stockpiles of spent fuelare not just academic: At least four fires have burned there since it began operating in 1987, and a major 1988 blaze involving an electrical cable took two local fire departments and an onsite fire brigade three hours to quell.

“Other than being unsafe and illegal, there are no problems with fire safety [at Harris] at all,” quipped nuclear engineer David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Washington office, one of the forum’s expert speakers along with Paul Gunter of the Maryland-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service. UCS and NIRS filed the petition last year, along with the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, N.C. Fair Share and Students United for a Responsible Global Environment.

The forum drew about a dozen local officials from both major parties, including the Pittsboro and Carrboro mayors; Orange and Chatham county commissioners; Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Holly Springs council members; and state Sen. Bob Atwater (D-Chatham). U.S. Rep. David Pricea Chapel Hill Democrat with nuclear oversight responsibilities as chair of the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security Appropriationssent a representative. In all, about 80 people attended. However, no Progress or NRC officials came, leading several attendees to hold signs asking, “Where is the NRC?”

Attendees expressed frustration that the agency has not taken action against Harris, which is seeking re-licensing. For that, said N.C. WARN organizer Margie Ellison, citizens have only themselves to blame.

“We have to take responsibility for the fact that nothing has happened,” thundered Ellison. “We’ve got to get organized, because they are.”

A recent NRC ruling on post-9/11 plant security has intensified watchdogs’ worries about Harris fire safety. In January, the agency decided that instead of defending against aircraft or substantial teams of ground attackers, U.S. nuclear plant owners instead could rely on measures that control fires and explosions.

“Nuclear power plants are inherently robust structures that our studies show provide adequate protection in a hypothetical attack by an airplane,” said NRC Chairman Dale Klein.

But Lochbaum disputed Klein’s claims in a paper citing numerous studies that show the opposite: Attacks on various plant structures could cause catastrophic radiation releases. (See “The NRC’s Revised Security Regulations” at Lochbaum says the studies also indicate that nuclear plants are vulnerable to fires from withineven when safety rules are followed.

Plant security is a serious concern for Harris watchdogs. In December 2005, UCS and N.C. WARN filed an NRC complaint over security shortcomings at Harris disclosed by an anonymous whistle-blowing guard. The NRC issued interim findings that confirmed a number of the guard’s allegationsincluding chronically malfunctioning security doors and a vital-area fire alarm sounding for hoursbut has not yet released its final report. A division of the N.C. Attorney General’s office also confirmed improper training of the plant’s guards.

Hoping to improve working conditions, Harris guards last year unionized with the Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America. Employed by a U.S. subsidiary of the Swedish firm Securitas but supervised by Progress, the guards hoped unionization would help reduce a workweek that typically runs 60 hours and sometimes more than 72, contributing to a turnover rate that last year averaged about 40 percent, according to the guards.

Long hours for nuclear plant workers are a problem nationwide. The Washington-based Project on Government Oversight recently urged the NRC to implement proposed rules limiting overtime for guards. The group’s 2002 report found nuclear plant guards often faced retaliation for complaining about long hours.

But so far, unionization hasn’t brought Harris guards any relief. After seven months of contract negotiations, the latest Securitas offer included more than 30 takeaways and no improvements, reports lead union negotiator Eugene McConville. Securitas wants to cut wages and reduce annual sick time from 48 to 24 hours. Management’s refusal to compromise has led the union to file charges of bad-faith bargaining with the National Labor Relations Board and threaten to picket.

“The company wants to try to save money, but we’re the ones who pay,” says Harris guard Robert Mangual, an Army veteran and SPFPA local president. “And unfortunately, all the turnover means the plant’s secrets are getting out.”