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NRC mum on safety plans at Shearon Harris


"Oh, and the next time terrorists launch an attack on American soil, they will find their task made much easier by the administration's strange reluctance, even after 9-11, to protect potential targets."
--Paul Krugman, The New York Times

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission comes to town once a year with its public forum designed to address the community's concerns with nuclear power. But at the March 24 meeting at the Holiday Inn Express in Apex, representatives of the NRC and Progress Energy held tight to their planed agendas and avoided the pressing concern of citizens in attendance--what's the plan at Wake County's Shearon Harris nuclear power plant in case of a terrorist attack?

The NRC didn't say much.

Citizens expressed concerns that ranged from planes flying into the nuclear reactor to terrorists sabotaging the more than 4 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel held in four high-density pools at the site. NRC officials avoided concrete answers to all of the external-threat questions, and responded with a barrage of "I don't know," "That's out of our jurisdiction," "That's classified information," and "We'll get back to you on that."

Another topic failed to come up--a recent U.S. Department of Labor finding (that has received no local news coverage) that an employee at the plant was fired for refusing to lie to the NRC about security breaches.

In September 2003, Richard Kester, the plant's former superintendent of corporate access authorization who's in charge of the office that conducts background investigations for employees and contractors, was found by Department of Labor administrative law appellate judges to have been improperly fired after his supervisor asked him to lie about how three contract employees had gained falsified clearances in January 1999.

According to Department of Labor transcripts of the hearings on his complaint, the breach took place while the nuclear reactor was being refueled, a process that occurs every 18 months. During this time, the reactor was shut down and temporary workers were called in to work. The workers were required to pass strict background checks; three did not.

The same problem had arisen two years earlier--in 1997, CP&L was fined $55,000 for allowing workers to enter the plant without proper background checks. Kester's boss, Bob Gill, was found to be connected to that event, according to the transcripts.

Gill was concerned that he would be fired if another breach was connected to him and began secretly interviewing employees who reported to Kester, the transcripts say. "According to Kester, Gill then suggested that if Kester told the NRC investigator that he, Kester, would take full responsibility for the falsified clearances, the 'problem' with his employees could be worked out just between them," the transcripts say.

Kester was compensated by Progress Energy as a result of the finding, but the amount is not public.

Although the settlement occurred between last year's meeting and the March 24 meeting, there was no mention of security breaches at Shearon Harris.

Instead, the NRC and Progress Energy representatives spent most of their time addressing the four unscheduled shutdowns, or "scrams," at Shearon Harris in 2003. According to Paul Frederickson, branch chief for the NRC's Division of Reactor Projects in Atlanta, Shearon Harris' four "scrams" were all related to power generation equipment.

"This number is relatively large for what we'd expect," Frederickson said.

Shearon Harris ranks high among the 22 power plants in the country that suffered unexpected shutdowns this year, said Roger Hannah, an NRC spokesman. The plant has a track record 10 times the industry average for "scrams" since 2002, according to the activist group N.C. WARN.

Progress Energy also spoke about internal security. Representatives showed pictures of guards holding large guns and assured the audience that security was a top priority post-9-11.

"Safety is number one," said Jim Scarola, a Progress Energy vice president.

Despite the unmentioned security breaches, "scrams" records and lawsuits, Frederickson emphasized that Shearon Harris is safe. "We've actually looked at the site at Shearon Harris and we think it's satisfactory," he said.

When asked later to define satisfactory, Frederickson replied, "I don't know. "

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