March 17, 2006
Feds to Issue Interim Findings on Shearon Harris Security Investigation
Guards say some corrections are being made, but defense levels are insufficient;
no arrests have been made in intruder incidents
DURHAM, NC – The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will release an interim report next week regarding its investigation into charges of systemic security flaws at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant, while a separate investigation into possible NRC misconduct is underway by the agency’s inspector general. Harris guards say that the investigation triggered action by Progress Energy to fill a number of security gaps, but they remain concerned that changes will be short-lived unless managers stop prioritizing cost-saving over security. They also say recent intrusions at Harris are but one indication that defense at nuclear plants falls far short of the level needed.
In a letter sent today to Reps. David Price, Bob Etheridge and Brad Miller, whose districts surround the Harris plant, NC WARN asked the congressmen to ensure that Progress Energy and the NRC are fully accountable for ensuring the security of the plant. The NRC considers the Harris investigation a test case for lifting the blackout of information relating to past security deficiencies. As one guard told NC WARN, “there is nothing security sensitive about past flaws unless they have not been corrected and/or are likely to recur. It’s only embarrassing to Progress Energy, Securitas and the NRC.”
The Harris security problems were exposed by watchdog groups NC WARN and the Union of Concerned Scientists on December 13th based on reports from Harris guards. The 10-page complaint included security doors, gates, and detection equipment left inoperable for long periods; violation of entry checkpoints; and reprisals against guards for reporting injuries and security violations. Since then, guards told the groups and reporters that during on-site interviews with NRC investigators, most of the security force confirmed most of the complaints – and a culture of punishing those who report security problems, including injuries.
Guards say Progress Energy was scrambling to repair broken security equipment when NRC investigators arrived in January. Apparently doors are so old, parts were not available. Last month, David Lochbaum of UCS discovered documents showing that NRC had been alerted in 1999 and 2003 to numerous security and fire doors that malfunctioned. The watchdog groups want NRC to find records showing whether these sets of doors were repaired, and whether they may be among those the guards say have remained inoperable for years.
The NC Department of Labor recently ordered the reinstatement of guards who were fired for reporting injuries, and required Progress to hire an outside agency to work with guards to air “compliments and concerns.” The first meeting produced 10 compliments and 55 concerns, according to a meeting summary obtained by NC WARN. Nuclear safety expert Lochbaum said,“That’s a long list of concerns by the security force responsible for protecting a nuclear power plant.”
One of the guards’ December complaints was that they were forced to cheat on various certification exams. Progress told guards this week the entire force will be retested by trainers from another plant. NRC has apparently investigated the cheating issue, and a division of NC Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office says they are just getting started with their own investigation into the security contractor, Securitas.
Four recent security incidents at Progress’ NC plants remain unsolved. In August, a Harris guard reported being fired upon while on patrol near the plant perimeter, which led to a plant lockdown. In November, a large black flag was hung from a critical communication tower. On the same night, a rail line outside the Brunswick plant was sabotaged. Brunswick workers alerted NC WARN that several rail cars derailed and overturned last month, although the group has no evidence this was related to the earlier sabotage, nor whether the cause of derailment has been determined.
On the night of January 31st, two people in a small boat entered a canal leading to Harris’ cooling water intake structure. After hearing a gunshot, guards called out and the boaters – apparently hunters – fled. Local law enforcement was called in, and found a vehicle and boat trailer, but no one has been apprehended. The Chatham County sheriff’s department told NC WARN yesterday that the FBI is involved in the case.
That incident relates to whether nuclear plants are adequately defended in a post 9/11 United States. Harris guards responded per procedures, but the greater question is why are defense resources at U.S. nuclear power plants insufficient to prevent intruders from gaining access to a point where they were within line of sight to one of the most vital and vulnerable parts of a nuclear power plant.
A long-awaited and controversial “update” by NRC of plant defenses assumes an attack by fewer than half the hijackers involved on 9/11, armed only with light weapons. An NRC spokesman told Associated Press that nuclear plant security is designed only “to hold that site long enough so the cavalry can respond,” referring to local police and federal military. The agency still assumes the Air Force will deal with any potential attack from the air.
Harris guards say the force is not large enough to defend against a realistic level of attack. Some of them
were startled one day last fall to see a British jetliner flying at very low altitude directly above the plant. NC WARN is asking for help by the congressmen to determine why this happened, and what has been done to correct this vulnerability.
NC WARN is a grassroots non-profit using science and activism to tackle climate change and reduce hazards to public health and the environment from nuclear power and other polluting electricity production, and working for a transition to safe, economical energy in North Carolina.