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Nuke plant guards under investigation

As Progress Energy investigates guards for releasing information, security staff say vital doors still malfunction. And the NRC can't ensure that other problems have been resolved.


When a guard at the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant blew the whistle on security problems at the Progress Energy facility near Raleigh, he hoped regulators would step in and force the company to fix the problems, such as malfunctioning doors to vital parts of the operation. Instead, guards say, the company has focused its attention on finding out who spoke up.

Soon after nuclear watchdogs Union of Concerned Scientists of Cambridge, Mass. and the Durham-based N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network sent a complaint detailing the allegations to federal and state regulators and law enforcement agencies, Progress Energy and its security contractor announced at the guards' shift briefings that they were investigating the improper release of sensitive security information, the guards say.

Meanwhile, guards report that critical security doors are still malfunctioning. Furthermore, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the watchdog groups in a Dec. 19 meeting it had confirmed that at least one vital door at the plant was broken--but that it did not know whether the door had been fixed. The agency said it had already been investigating about half of the watchdogs' allegations but could not say whether any have been resolved.

Other security concerns cited by the guards, who insisted on anonymity, included orders to save time by not searching incoming vehicles, widespread cheating on state security certification tests, and weapons violations in protected areas. Guards also say the company discourages them from reporting on-the-job injuries, resulting in security staff working at less than full physical capacity.

While the guard on whom the complaint is based remained anonymous even to UCS and N.C. WARN, the groups said they were convinced of his reliability after extensive interviews of the guard's positions at the plant.

The NRC, FBI and state Attorney General's office say they are looking into the complaint filed with them Dec. 13 by UCS and N.C. WARN. The 10-page document details numerous security flaws at Shearon Harris as well as external threats such as a guard being fired on from the woods near the facility and sabotage at the Brunswick nuclear plant outside Wilmington. It calls on the agencies not only to investigate the allegations but also to take immediate action to secure all doors and gates.

Mike Saylor of the FBI's Raleigh office says his agency's authority is limited to investigating external threats to the plant. But the NRC Inspector General told nuclear safety expert David Lochbaum of UCS that it is open to getting involved due to allegations of NRC misconduct and would offer confidentiality to guards willing to help.

The watchdogs' complaint is based on 15 hours of interviews with a Shearon Harris security guard who contacted N.C. WARN after reporting problems to the NRC and its Inspector General but seeing no action taken. Another guard interviewed separately by The Independent confirmed the problems detailed in the complaint. His name is being withheld to protect him from possible retaliation.

Days after the complaint was filed, Raleigh-based Progress still had not repaired malfunctioning doors to vital parts of the operation, according to two armed guards interviewed separately by The Independent. But the company did launch an immediate investigation into the possible release of protected security information by the whistleblowers, the guards say--which Progress spokesperson Rick Kimble confirms.

"We have to clear up the release of safeguards information first," Kimble says. If the company finds such information was released, it would pass the details on to the NRC and FBI for further investigation and possible prosecution, he says.

Safeguards information includes details about methods of protecting commercial nuclear power plants, explains NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell. It can also include details about the location and composition of security.

If an individual or corporation is found to have willfully violated safeguards regulations, the U.S. Department of Justice can pursue criminal charges with a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a prison term of up to two years, Burnell says. The NRC also can impose civil sanctions, including a fine of as much as $100,000.

Kimble also says a team of Progress managers is "looking into every one" of the complaint's allegations. But even after the complaint's filing, one of the guards reports opening several critical doors without a key--something that's never supposed to happen.

"These are all places where it's crazy for doors not to be secured," the guard says.

While doors at Shearon Harris were still reportedly malfunctioning, Progress and its security contractor began probing the allegedly improper release of security details by the whistleblowers. Securitas Security Services USA Inc. --the U.S. subsidiary of Sweden-based Securitas AB, the world's largest security firm--provides guard services at the plant.

In a briefing of guards held soon after the complaint was released, a Securitas supervisor announced that the company was looking into the leak of safeguards information, a guard reports. Guards also report being subjected to individual interviews by Progress management in which they were asked about the watchdogs' complaint, among other things. Securitas could not be reached for comment.

Concerns about the possibly improper release of security information arise because parts of the complaint were redacted, Kimble says. The complaint blacks out names of certain doors, gates, buildings and persons.

But UCS and N.C. WARN say they went beyond legal requirements to protect security when they blacked-out sensitive details. Warren reports that Glenn Tracy, chief of the NRC's reactor licensing section, assured him that even the unredacted version of the complaint did not contain safeguards information. Tracy did not return a request for comment.

The watchdog groups view Progress's concern about improper disclosures as a red herring distracting from security concerns--and as a way to intimidate guards from speaking up about problems. N.C. WARN and UCS on Dec. 14 sent a letter to Progress Energy Chairman and CEO Bob McGehee asking him to prevent retaliation against the guards.

The atmosphere of fear among the guards has led Steve Maritas, organizing director for the Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America, to pull plans for a union election among guards that he was hoping to hold as soon as this month.

"There's no way I can win now," Maritas says.

The watchdog groups are also disturbed by state law enforcement authorities' inaction regarding the complaint. Among the allegations in the document was widespread cheating on state security certification exams, which fall under the aegis of N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper. Spokesperson Noelle Talley says Cooper's office passed the complaint to the Private Protective Services Board, which directly oversees the exams, on Dec. 20.

The attorney general should already have assured the public that the plant has been secured--particularly the doors and gates, says N.C. WARN Executive Director Jim Warren. In the absence of such assurances, he says he infers that such measures have not been taken.

"The public deserves a lot better," Warren says. "Somebody, by God, ought to be taking action."

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