Armed guards at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear power plant near Raleigh have blown the whistle on what they describe as lax security resulting from a corporate culture focused on containing costs. National and local nuclear watchdog groups filed a complaint Tuesday with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC Inspector General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper detailing anonymous guards' concerns--and their allegations have been confirmed by another guard interviewed separately by the Independent.
The complaint, parts of which have been redacted out of security concerns, cites problems that include orders to save time by not searching incoming vehicles, malfunctioning doors leading to vital parts of the facility, widespread cheating on state security certification tests, and weapons violations in protected areas. It also says that the company discourages guards from reporting on-the-job injuries, resulting in security staff working at less than full physical capacity.
Even more worrying, the security problems have been allowed to continue while Progress Energy's North Carolina nuclear operations have apparently been the target of hostile intruders. In a well-publicized incident, someone trespassed into the owner-controlled buffer area near Shearon Harris last month and left a black flag near the top of a 100-foot communications tower. But the complaint describes other incidents that haven't become publicly known. In August, a security guard came under rifle fire from the woods near Shearon Harris, leading to a lockdown of the plant. The shooter was not found. And the same day as the flag incident at Shearon Harris, a rail line leaving Progress Energy's Brunswick nuclear plant near Wilmington was sabotaged, with someone driving spikes into a switching mechanism. The vandalism was discovered before a possible derailment occurred.
The complaint, filed Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists of Cambridge, Mass., and the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network of Durham, lands on officials' desks as nuclear security is gaining renewed attention nationally. Former members of the 9/11 Commission last week issued a report card giving the Department of Homeland Security a D for failing to take adequate steps to protect the nation's nuclear plants. And the Government Accountability Office last month began a study of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight of the nation's 103 nuclear reactors--particularly whether the plants are being operated safely and securely.
The complaint also comes as Progress and other utilities nationwide have announced plans to expand their nuclear capacity, an effort N.C. WARN has been fighting with help from UCS. The whistleblowers' claims reinforce the groups' longstanding concerns about nuclear plant security, especially in the post-9/11 United States.
"Given the breadth and depth of the alleged problems, I think they're clearly above threshold for having state and federal authorities look into them quickly," says David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and prominent safety expert with UCS. "They suggest there may be seams in the security at the plant that would make it possible for bad guys to cause problems."
The Independent called Progress for comment, but the company did not respond by the paper's deadline.
Although Lochbaum and N.C. WARN Executive Director Jim Warren say they do not know the identity of the whistle-blower who is the primary source for their complaint, they believe him to be reliable. He is the same person who initially alerted N.C. WARN to the flag incident, which remains under investigation by the Wake County Sheriff and the FBI.
"The information we've gotten from the 15 hours of interviews and documents provided to us has been consistent and has a level of detail that convinces us the accusations are credible," Warren says. "We strongly believe this information came from people in the guard force and must be taken seriously."
The guard spoke by phone with the Independent but refused to reveal his identity for fear of reprisals from Progress. Shearon Harris guards are employed by Securitas Security Services USA, a subsidiary of Sweden-based Securitas AB, the world's largest private security firm. Progress subcontracts with Securitas to provide frontline security personnel, but the guards' supervisors work for Progress. The situation is comparable to being on the payroll of a temporary employment agency while taking orders from the agency's contractor.
"People are so frightened," says the guard, who says he's worked at Shearon Harris for more than a year, starting at $13.50 an hour. "They get fired right and left."
The Independent was unable to reach anyone at Securitas for comment.
The guard contacted N.C. WARN and the media only after anonymously reporting security problems to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and to its Inspector General's office, but seeing no corrective action taken, he says.
He describes a workplace where an emphasis on holding down costs has led to security shortcuts and maintenance problems. For example, Shearon Harris's in-house NRC officer during a recent inspection opened a door to a vital area of the plant without a key, which is not supposed to happen, the guard reports. But Progress did not subsequently order an inspection of all the doors and repairs to those with problems, he says. Instead, supervisors have ordered guards not to pull on the doors so hard when checking them.
"The first time the lock on the door of your house opens without a key, you're going to get a new lock, right?" the guard says. "Progress knows these doors at the plant are not secured, and it hasn't fixed them. And these doors are about the worst possible doors on the East Coast to not be secured."
The whistle-blower's allegations of security problems at Shearon Harris--including malfunctioning doors--were confirmed by another guard interviewed by the Independent. The second guard also asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job.
"They're running security like a business, not a necessity," he says, pointing to high turnover on the force, excessive overtime and management efforts to discourage injury reports. "The morale of the guards is at an all-time low, and the company doesn't seem to care."
That the guards are afraid to make their names public isn't surprising given Progress' past treatment of whistleblowers. Last year the company settled for an undisclosed amount of money a lawsuit involving Richard Kester, a former high-ranking security official at Shearon Harris who was fired in 1999 after refusing to lie to the NRC about improper security clearances. Actions like that inevitably have a chilling effect on other employees with safety concerns, Warren observes.
But the problem of reprisals against guards isn't limited to Progress Energy. The Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to expose corruption, released a report in 2002 titled "Nuclear Power Plant Security: Voices From Inside the Fence." Based on interviews with 20 guards at 13 facilities around the country, the report not only found that morale is poor and guards are under-equipped, undermanned and underpaid, it also found that retaliation against whistleblowers by a utility or its security subcontractor is an unfortunate reality.
"Even under the best circumstances, a guard is risking his job in order to report security concerns," the report says. "In interviews with the group, guards repeatedly expressed their fear of being fired or retaliated against for publicly expressing their concerns about security weaknesses."
In an effort to improve their working conditions, the guards at Shearon Harris are currently trying to organize with the Security Police and Fire Professionals of America, the nation's largest union for security guards. Another union-organizing effort at the plant involving the United Government Security Officers of America failed last year, the guards report.
"The guys at Shearon Harris are scared and worried," says SPFPA Organizing Director Steve Maritas. "That's why they're becoming whistleblowers."
Indeed, the N.C. Department of Labor's Employment Discrimination Bureau intervened at the plant in August in response to complaints about improper suspensions and firings of guards who reported on-the-job injuries, some of which are detailed in the watchdogs' complaint. Bureau Administrator Skip Easterly says his office opened "several" files on Shearon Harris in August. However, he cannot publicly disclose details of those investigations until they're closed, probably later this month.
"They're in settlement negotiations at the moment," Easterly reports.
In a particularly disturbing allegation, the Shearon Harris guards claim that Securitas forces them to cheat on the annual certification test required by the N.C. Private Protective Services Board, a division of the N.C. Department of Justice. When the guards take the test--which Securitas is allowed to administer to its own employees at the plant--the company requires them to take answer keys into the testing area, they say.
The guards "believe the cheating is forced because Securitas is short on guards and cannot afford to lose anyone who might fail the exam," according to the complaint. The complaint says the practice is "eerily reminiscent" of widespread cheating on exams by operators at one unit of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania during efforts to restart it following the partial meltdown of the plant's sister unit.
The complaint also alleges that there have been at least four accidental weapons discharges at the Shearon Harris plant since January 2005, with three occurring on the site's firing range and another inside the security building. Progress allegedly required the personnel involved in one incident to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to keep the mishap secret. The accidental discharges point to "severe training deficiencies" at the plant, according to the complaint.
And there have been other alleged weapons violations at the plant. Earlier this year, a Progress security supervisor reportedly allowed unqualified personnel--including a high-ranking plant executive--to fire what's known as Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System or MILES gear inside the plant's protected area. MILES gear is a combat training system that uses weapons fitted with laser transmitters and firing blanks to simulate combat, but the particular equipment being used at Shearon Harris lacked safeguards to keep live ammunition from being used. In addition, a guard who was not aware of the unauthorized activity inside the protected area was startled to see personnel in plain clothes bearing rifles and responded by opening his gun port--just one step away from firing the weapon, according to the complaint.
Shortly after that incident, another guard was discovered to have live rounds of ammunition on his person while preparing to fire blanks at other plant guards during training--a "very close call," according to the complaint. The state Occupational Safety and Health Division was called in to investigate, but N.C. Labor Department spokesperson Juan Santos says OSH ultimately determined it had no jurisdiction over firearms at nuclear facilities. "That would be the Department of Homeland Security or the NRC," he says.
Other allegations made in the complaint include falsification of guards' night shift records, with regular call-ins not happening as required but being recorded as if they had; violations of checkpoints, as Progress allegedly orders guards to forego required searches of vehicles in order to save time; malfunctioning intruder detection equipment; and old safety equipment. Earlier this year, guards allegedly complained to the state about outdated gas mask canisters--some of which had expired in 1987.
"If a chemical attack occurred at the plant, many of the guards would be taken down," the complaint states.
The Union of Concerned Scientists and N.C. WARN are asking that an investigation into the allegations begin right away. They want the officials with whom they filed the complaint to assure the public that they'll take immediate action to secure doors and gates at all Progress plants. They also ask that the state and FBI conduct their own investigations and not defer to the NRC, which they charge with negligence. Copies of the complaint were also sent to U.S. Reps. David Price, Bob Etheridge and Brad Miller of the Triangle area and to Gov. Mike Easley.
"A successful terrorist attack on the Shearon Harris plant, especially involving the fuel pools, is the worst-case disaster scenario for the Triangle region," says the complaint's cover letter. "It could result in thousands of people killed or serious contamination by radiation and the abandonment of thousands of square miles for many decades. This is absolutely not the situation in which we can allow a degradation of public safety."