A state probe into charges of cheating on certification exams by security staff at Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris nuclear power plant found improper training of the plant’s guards, who are responsible for protecting not only the facility’s reactor but also one of the nation’s largest stockpiles of highly radioactive spent fuel. The findings stoke a long-simmering controversy over the Wake County facility’s security, which is provided by Securitas Security Services USA.

The investigation by the N.C. Private Protective Services Board, a division of the state attorney general’s office, found that handgun training for Harris guards was provided by instructors lacking proper certification. It also found that guards were recertified without a required annual refresher course. And it raised questions about whether Harris guards have been getting adequate training in other critical areas, including gun use, legal search procedures and contraband detection.

“It was a wake-up call,” says Jim Warren, executive director of the Durham-based N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, who attended the hearing and whose group first raised the issues last year. “They realized the state had to get on the stick, because neither the NRC nor the licensee was showing adequate responsibility over the issue.”

The findings so concerned the PPSB that it is reconsidering a 15-year-old agreement giving utility companies broad control over firearms training and reasserted its oversight at North Carolina’s three nuclear power plants. The agency released its final investigation report during an Oct. 17 hearing at a Cary hotel.

The PPSB investigation was triggered last December when NC WARN and the national Union of Concerned Scientists filed a complaint with state and federal regulators alleging widespread security problems at the plant 20 miles southwest of Raleigh. Among the allegations in the complaint, which was based on information from plant guards, was widespread cheating on written security exams.

PPSB assigned the case to Investigator Tim Pressley, a former Chapel Hill police officer. Between May 1 and Aug. 4, Pressley interviewed 105 current and former Harris guards, representing most of the security staff.

In his final report, Pressley notes that the state doesn’t require a written certification exam for nuclear plant guards. However, it does recommend companies offer a test, and Securitas administers one during basic training. Pressley found no evidence of cheating on that exam–but he did find evidence of cheating on an annual written test required by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC is currently wrapping up its own investigation into alleged cheating and other security problems. The agency has already confirmed some of the guards’ complaints, including reports that security doors were left malfunctioning for long periods.

Guards charge that Securitas supervisors handed out answer keys to test-takers. They also report that three supervisors involved in the cheating have since lost security clearance at the plant.

Pressley discovered problems with security certification at Harris that were not part of the original complaint. For example, basic training for guards held earlier this year was provided by three instructors who had not yet received their state firearms trainer certificates, a violation of the rules. PPSB Director Terry Wright said his agency would issue letters of reprimand to those instructors.

In addition, Pressley discovered that Securitas could not assure that it had provided the four hours of state-mandated classroom training for guards prior to their annual handgun recertification. Securitas submitted certificates indicating the applicants had completed 20 hours of classroom training, but that number referred only to the training required for their initial certification. The report notes that five trainers signed firearms renewal certificates without having guards complete the required refresher course.

As part of the probe, Pressley compared training conducted by Securitas at Harris and what was mandated by PPSB and found apparent shortfalls. For example, Securitas offers one hour of instruction on legal contraband detection and denial–six hours less than PPSB requires. The company also offered: five hours less training than required on legal aspects of armed and unarmed security; 4.5 hours less on legal personnel and vehicle searches; 4.5 hours less on access control; three hours less on duties and responsibilities; and two hours less on nighttime pistol use.

PPSB Director Terry Wright says it’s questionable whether those were actual shortfalls because there’s confusion over what’s covered by NRC training. Adding to the regulatory chaos is the fact that the PPSB can’t locate a written copy of its 1991 agreement with the utilities–or even find anyone who remembers what it said.

However, the whistle-blowing security guard whose allegations provided the basis of the original complaint says he definitely did not get the training mandated by PPSB. Until reading the agency’s report, he was not even aware of what the training requirements were.

“I must admit I was pretty ignorant about the hours,” says the guard, whose name is being withheld to protect him from retaliation. “I only knew what they wanted me to know.”

Besides having clear implications for plant security, the training shortfalls put the public in jeopardy, the guard says. He tells of an incident that occurred last winter in which hunters were firing guns in the woods near the plant. Dispatched to make them cease, guards stopped the hunters’ vehicle on a public road and detained them at gunpoint–which they later learned they lacked the legal authority to do. Had they received the proper training on searches, that probably wouldn’t have happened, the guard observes.

“By not giving us the right training, the company was leaving us out to dry,” he says.

Robert Adden Jr., a Charlotte-based attorney representing Securitas, argued during the PPSB hearing that guard training at Harris is continual and ongoing, implying that annual refresher courses were less important, according to sources who attended the hearing. Adden also made the case that formal certification of firearms instructors wasn’t critical to the training process. The board, however, rejected his arguments in agreeing to issue letters of reprimand to the instructors. State regulators are also imposing a small fine on Securitas for guard registration violations.

“We continue to have the highest confidence in the guards’ ability to do their job, which is to protect the health and safety of the public,” said Progress spokesman Rick Kimble.