As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wraps up its investigation of alleged security flaws at Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris nuclear power plant, new evidence has surfaced of ongoing failures to fix security problems at the Raleigh-area facility. Among other things, it suggests the plant’s chronic difficulties with malfunctioning security doors continued into late February–well after NRC inspectors visited the site and Progress assured the public the doors were in good working order.
In January, Progress announced plans to build two new reactors at Harris, which already houses the nation’s largest stockpile of highly radioactive spent fuel. The announcement came soon after the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network of Durham (NC WARN) and the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington filed an NRC complaint based on Harris guards’ reports of serious problems with plant protection, including guards being forced to work injured, widespread cheating on security certification exams, and broken security doors.
NRC investigators visited Harris in January, and their work is “nearing completion,” agency spokesperson Ken Clark says. NRC officials told UCS nuclear expert David Lochbaum they expect to report their findings this month. NRC is using the widely publicized Harris situation as a test case for easing the ban on discussing plant security imposed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Lochbaum reports.
The NRC isn’t the only agency examining Harris. The N.C. Private Protective Services Board, which oversees security certification, is still investigating the cheating charges, says Director Wayne Woodard. And last August, the N.C. Employment Discrimination Bureau intervened over complaints about improper suspensions of Harris guards who reported on-the-job injuries. The guards–who are employed by Securitas Security Services USA but report to Progress managers–say the policy was an effort to contain workers’ compensation costs.
Bureau Administrator Skip Easterly says the guards withdrew their complaints after settling with Progress. The settlement details are not public, but guards say it’s led to meetings at which their representatives are invited to air concerns. These meetings are known as “2Cs,” for “complaints” and “compliments.” The 2Cs “are one of several different methods we use to get informal feedback from our employees and contractors,” says Progress spokesperson Julie Hans. N.C. WARN obtained the notes from the first 2C meeting, held Feb. 22, and provided them to the Independent.
“The fact that they’re having the meeting is positive, because you can’t fix a problem you don’t know about,” says Lochbaum. “But I was surprised by the length of the list of concerns.”
While the notes list 10 compliments, including “[r]epairs getting done more quickly than before,” there are 55 complaints. Some of them are typical of many workplaces–management making decisions without consulting employees, questionable promotions, etc. But a number of complaints raise red flags about plant security.
For example, complaint No. 47 notes that guards “[r]un too many drills when … tired from mandatory OT.” The UCS-N.C. WARN complaint accused Harris of giving guards gift cards in lieu of wages to avoid the appearance of exceeding weekly limits on hours worked. The NRC imposed the limits in response to complaints that nuclear security guards were overworked after 9/11. Harris guards typically work 12-hour shifts, which don’t include the time it takes to don 40 pounds of protective gear. The gear’s weight and the fact that the guards must carry it through the entire shift is also the subject of complaints.
“If they’re too tired from training drills, what does that say about their readiness for attacks?” Lochbaum says.
The notes also discuss the plant’s long-standing problems with security doors. Guards question the procedure for maintenance staff to examine malfunctioning doors reported to the central alarm station. “Response from central inappropriate on doors reported,” the notes state. “Central should not say … ‘leave it alone.’” The notes also ask, “Doors insufficient to secure facility?”
Since the watchdogs filed their complaint, Progress has insisted it’s secured and repaired all problem doors. “We are committed to making sure the plant is secure 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Hans says.
But documents show the plant’s door trouble goes back years. Lochbaum recently unearthed papers from a court case involving Orange County and Carolina Power & Light, now Progress Energy, in which nuclear expert Gordon Thompson testified about a 1999 Harris tour when a third of the security doors he encountered malfunctioned. And a July 2003 NRC inspection report on Harris stated, “During the last completion of the fire door surveillance procedure, relatively many fire doors were identified with deficiencies.”
It’s not clear that the doors malfunctioning in 1999 and 2003 are the same doors that still worry guards today. But the documents suggest Progress has not been proactive in maintaining critical equipment, and they seem to support guards’ claims that cost-cutting efforts sometimes trump plant safety.
“It’s odd that a company who can’t even seem to figure out doors would think about building a new nuclear plant,” says Lochbaum.