March 22, 2006
Harris guards and watchdog groups say system must change to prioritize safety and security
DURHAM, NC – Federal regulators today confirmed a number of security problems reported in December by guards at the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant – including multiple and “longstanding” problems with doors leading to vital areas – and said several serious allegations remain under investigation. Industry watchdog groups applauded the whistle-blowing Harris guards who risked their jobs to expose the problems to the media and public, leading to the investigations and a number of plant corrections.
The Harris security problems were aired by NC WARN and the Union of Concerned Scientists in December based on reports from Harris guards frustrated that their complaints to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission were being ignored. The allegations included security doors, gates, and detection equipment left inoperable for long periods.
David Lochbaum is a nuclear safety expert with Union of Concerned Scientists. Today he asked, “How could Progress Energy and the NRC, with all the alleged emphasis on nuclear plant security after 9/11, have serious flaws remain uncorrected until a few brave security officers risked their careers to come forward and call attention to them?”
NRC reported that at least 14 doors to vital plant areas have malfunctioned. Regarding documents showing multiple security and fire doors were malfunctioning up to six years ago, NRC Region II security head Victor McCree told NC WARN and UCS that NRC did not need to investigate them, saying, “It was pretty clear that the licensee should have taken action long ago.”
None of the guards’ allegations were refuted, although NRC said its investigators were unable to substantiate some of them. Other allegations were confirmed by actions taken by state labor officials and OSHA. Additionally, reports by guards of several intruder/security incidents in recent months were confirmed by Progress Energy and law enforcement.
Although going public triggered action by Progress Energy to fill a number of security gaps, the guards and groups remain concerned the changes will be short-lived unless managers stop prioritizing cost-saving over security. News reports indicate Progress Energy is under great pressure to reduce its $11 billion debt and improve its financial status.
Still ongoing are investigations into forced cheating on certification exams; and reprisals against guards for reporting security violations, including injuries that could render security officers unable to respond to intruders. Progress announced today that it is retesting all security guards. The NRC’s Inspector General is investigating the agency’s activities during the investigation following complaints about possible misconduct.
The two complainant organizations met with senior NRC officials today by phone, and received a more detailed version of the NRC report than one released to the media.
Lochbaum added: “Progress needs to stand behind its statements about prioritizing safety; correcting security problems only after lots of media coverage seems to contradict that posture.”
A number of guards have talked privately with NC WARN, UCS and reporters, but remain anonymous. Although the state labor department ordered several guards reinstated after being fired for reporting injuries, guards remain concerned about the pattern of reprisals at Shearon Harris.
“Given the industry’s longstanding and pervasive control over NRC, we appreciate that these NRC security officials could get to the root of many of these problems.” said NC WARN Director Jim Warren. “NRC’s report today said seven of the charges were substantiated and are being corrected. Progress said today it is taking corrective measures and we are pleased with that action.”
This is the third set of serious security failures at Harris in recent years. Twice in the late 1990s, the company allowed workers who had failed background checks into Harris and other plants. A similar incident occurred last year at its Floridaplant. The groups and guards are particularly concerned because Harris has the largest nuclear waste pools in the nation, making it a potential target.
Harris guards say the force is not large enough to defend against a realistic level of attack, and that the intrusions at Harris – all unsolved by law enforcement – are but one indication that defense at nuclear plants falls far short of the level needed. A recent “update” of plant defenses by NRC requires defense against fewer than one-third of the 9/11 attack force, armed only with light weapons. The agency says the Air Force is responsible for countering any attack from the air. Some Harris guards were startled last fall to see a British jetliner flying at very low altitude directly above the plant.
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.