The Nuclear Regulatory Commission came to the Triangle last week to discuss its glowing report card for Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris nuclear plant–and got an earful from area residents about the plant’s safety record and its own oversight process.

In past years, performance review meetings for the Wake County plant were quiet affairs. Held weekdays at a local motel, they typically drew more reporters than concerned citizens. But this year the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network–a Durham-based nuclear watchdog that’s challenging plans to build a new reactor at Harris–asked NRC to move the meeting to a weeknight. The May 23 gathering, at the New Horizons Fellowship in Apex, was considerably more contentious than past events.

Before the NRC meeting, N.C. WARN held a meeting of its own next door to discuss why it considers the Harris report card “rigged.” Completed in February, the color-coded performance review for 2005 gave Harris a “green” rating in all categories, indicating any problems found have low safety significance. Harris received no white, yellow or red marks, which indicate issues requiring extra oversight.

N.C. WARN Director Jim Warren pointed out that Harris got the all-green despite serious problems with fire safety. Since 1992, Harris has violated federal regulations against the use of Thermo-Lag fire barriers, regulations that were imposed because the manufacturer falsified test data. Harris uses as much as 10,000 square feet of Thermo-Lag, to protect from fire, the leading risk factor for meltdown. Harris also protects 6,000 feet of electrical cable with a fire barrier called Hemyc, which also has failed tests. The possibility of electrical fires at Harris is not mere speculation–in 1989, a short sparked a blaze in the turbine area that took three hours to quell.

Warren noted other problems at Harris. A 2005 NRC study ranked the plant highest nationally in meltdown risk from off-site power loss. Harris leads the nation in sudden reactor shutdowns, and it’s one of 68 U.S. plants with a design flaw that increases the risk of clogs in a sump that circulates backup cooling water. Harris also deals with one of the nation’s largest stockpiles of radioactive waste by packing it in water-filled pools in ever-denser configurations, increasing the risk of catastrophic fire. Furthermore, N.C. WARN and the Union of Concerned Scientists last year filed a formal complaint over security shortcomings at the plant, alleging that supervisors encouraged guards to cheat on certification exams and that doors to vital areas chronically malfunctioned.

“Our concern is not just noncompliance,” said Paul Gunter, a safety expert with the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service, who participated in the N.C. WARN meeting by speakerphone. “As much of a concern is that the NRC has repeatedly failed to take enforcement action to bring noncompliant facilities into order.”

About 70 people attended the NRC meeting. The agency must have been expecting hard questions, as it had on hand Victor McCree, director of the Division of Reactor Safety for the Atlanta regional office. Though he had never attended a report card meeting before, McCree addressed many of the attendees’ concerns, along with regional reactor projects chief Paul Fredrickson.

Questioning went on for over an hour. Why is it that Progress, which reported $690 million in profits in 2004, didn’t spend money to fix security doors? Why does the NRC exclude widespread safety problems, such as faulty fire barriers, from reactor report cards? Why is Harris still using Thermo-Lag when problems with the material were identified 14 years ago? Why doesn’t the NRC do something about tightly packed fuel pools? How can the NRC allow Progress to state that Harris produces “emissions-free” energy when the plant releases significant levels of radioactive tritium? Why is NRC enforcement so toothless?

In response to every question, McCree and Fredrickson exculpated Progress and their agency. How Harris spends its money is not the NRC’s business, they said. Widespread safety problems will be addressed eventually. Harris still relies on Thermo-Lag in places, but it’s also using new and improved fire barriers. Spent fuel pools meet all regulatory requirements. Radioactive emissions are within allowable limits. Citing violations isn’t the only tool in the NRC’s regulatory kit.

“This is an exercise in hooey!” one frustrated audience member exclaimed.

When the meeting ended, attendee Lucia Poe introduced herself to a gaggle of reporters and NRC officials. She likened the proceedings to a trial, with federal officials serving as industry counsel.

“What we just heard was a defense of the industry by the NRC,” Poe complained.

Meanwhile, the NRC and the N.C. Attorney General’s Private Protective Services Board continue their investigations into Harris security.

Though the NRC released a preliminary report earlier this year confirming many of the guards’ concerns, agency officials were at the plant in May interviewing guards again. NRC spokesperson Roger Hannah–who in the late 1980s served as a Harris flack–says he can’t say when the agency will release its final report.

State officials were also at Harris in May interviewing guards, though William McKinney, a spokesman for the attorney general, says the agency has no timetable for completing its investigation. Guards report they’ve been required to retake the certification test, and that at least three supervisors with Harris contractor Securitas Security Services USA have been suspended over involvement in cheating.

And now the guard who served as the primary source for the security complaint is reporting a new problem. Due to high turnover, one guard platoon has had no female members for the past two weeks. As a result, women passing through the vital-area checkpoint during that platoon’s shifts are exempted from routine pat-downs. Instead, only their bags are searched, he says.

Progress spokesperson Julie Hans denies the guard’s allegations.

“All search procedures are conducted in accordance with federal regulations at all times, without exception,” she says. However, the guard notes that Progress denied other allegations that the NRC investigation later confirmed, such as chronically malfunctioning security doors.

“I sure hope security at other nuclear plants is not like it is at Harris,” says the guard, whose name is being withheld to protect him from retaliation. “If it is, God help us.”