The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week released an interim report confirming some allegations of security problems at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear power plant near Raleigh--including chronically malfunctioning doors to vital parts of the facility. Citing the company's promise to take action to prevent future problems, the watchdogs whose complaint sparked the probe say the findings vindicate the whistle-blowing guard who brought his concerns to their attention.
"His actions were courageous and led to important changes at the plant," says Jim Warren, director of the Durham-based N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network.
But the whistle-blower himself is less than pleased with the outcome. In fact, he blasts the NRC's report for downplaying the seriousness of the security problems and for failing to impose any penalties. He warns that a culture of cost-cutting at Progress--a company that's currently $11 billion in hock and whose senior unsecured long-term debt is rated one grade above junk--continues to put North Carolina residents at risk of radiological disaster.
"The report is bullshit," says the guard, whose name is being withheld by the Independent to protect him from retaliation by his employers. "They tried to make it look like they did an investigation, but the NRC ignored stuff that mattered. It was a whitewash."
Ken Clark, spokesperson for NRC's Atlanta office, says it's not unusual for parties to be unhappy with the NRC's conclusions in a contested case. "Individuals who believe more needs to be done certainly have the opportunity to say so," says Clark, noting they can contact the NRC's Office of Investigations, Office of Enforcement or Inspector General, whose review of NRC's actions at the plant is ongoing.
The NRC began investigating Harris last December in response to a complaint filed by local nuclear watchdog group N.C. WARN and the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists. The groups detailed 19 allegations of security-related problems at the facility that the whistle-blower brought to their attention. Harris guards are contractors employed by Securitas Security Services USA, a subsidiary of Sweden-based Securitas Group, but they report to Progress managers. They earn about $15 an hour.
The NRC in January dispatched to Harris three investigators who reviewed documents and interviewed 91 security guards. The investigators reached conclusions about 16 of the 19 allegations. While they substantiated seven concerns, they were "unable to establish the validity" of nine others, according to the NRC's March 22 letter to N.C. WARN and UCS detailing its findings. N.C. WARN posted the letter to its Web site at www.ncwarn.org.
Three other allegations remain under NRC investigation. One is that Securitas brass forced guards to take answer keys into security certification exams because they didn't want to lose job candidates. Progress is currently re-testing the guards under oversight so strict they must be escorted to the bathroom during the exam. Meanwhile, the whistle-blower reports that at least two guards have failed the new tests, and a Securitas supervisor charged with distributing answer keys in the past has lost his plant security clearance.
The NRC also continues to review claims that Progress managers retaliated against guards who raised security concerns, and that Progress and Securitas retaliated against guards who filed injury reports--an apparent effort to hold down workers' compensation costs. The N.C. Department of Labor's Employment Discrimination Bureau in recent months closed six claims relating to injury-related employment discrimination filed by three Harris guards. While EDB found one claim to be without merit, it closed the other five after confidential settlements were reached between the guards on one hand and Progress and Securitas on the other.
One of the settlements involved a father of four with good job performance reviews who was suspended after tearing his hamstring during a training exercise. His suspension triggered a chain- reaction of financial setbacks that culminated in repossession of the family's car, foreclosure on their home, and having to spend money on basic needs that they'd saved for curriculum materials for a home-schooled child with a learning disability. The family eventually had to file for bankruptcy.
In an e-mail to EDB Director Skip Easterly, the injured guard's wife confided being "frustrated and aggravated" at the way her husband was treated. "It makes me angry when I think of how much of himself he has given these last few years, to do his best to provide for our family and to protect that plant from harm, only to be seemingly punished and forgotten ... when he has done nothing wrong!" The man no longer works at Harris.
Meanwhile, Progress earlier this month paid out $5 million in bonuses to the company's 13 top executives--including $1.3 million to Chairman and CEO Robert McGehee for, among other things, eliminating 450 jobs. McGehee also got a raise and now makes $1.22 million.
Among the most serious allegations the NRC substantiated were ongoing problems with security doors to vital areas, which include one of the nation's largest stockpiles of highly radioactive spent fuel. The NRC discovered that Progress did repairs on 48 doors during 2005, including 14 vital-area doors that failed to lock. The whistle-blower says guards were told the doors were not replaced because they were too costly at about $7,000 each.
But even though the NRC found doors repeatedly malfunctioned, it downplayed the significance of the finding. The "substantiated concerns did not represent a degradation of plant security," the NRC wrote in its report.
That conclusion outrages the whistle-blowing guard, who says a security door that doesn't lock makes guards' job of protecting the plant difficult by providing potential concealment to adversaries. He also disputes the NRC's assurance that Progress took compensatory measures such as stationing an armed guard every time a door failed. In fact, he maintains Progress supervisors routinely instructed guards to stop pulling on doors that would not lock.
"'Don't try to open it so hard'--those were their exact words," he says.
The NRC also substantiated concerns regarding non-security personnel being allowed to fire guns inside the plant's protected area, a fire alarm in a vital area being allowed to sound for hours at a time, guards' gas-mask canisters and protective vests being years out of date, and a fire on a telephone pole triggering a power cutoff that downed the security communication system, which at the time lacked battery backup. But again, the NRC maintains these did not present serious security threats.
Another substantiated concern involved live bullets discovered on a guard preparing to fire blanks at his colleagues. After guards notified the N.C. Department of Labor about the incident, Progress obtained special rifles that can't fire live rounds. While NRC investigators confirmed the guard possessed live ammo, they reported that they "obtained no information which indicated that the [department] directed Harris to obtain modified rifles." However, labor department spokesperson Juan Santos says the agency received guards' complaints about the unsafe gear and--even though it has no formal jurisdiction over nuclear security matters--asked Progress to address the problem.
The NRC's reasons for not substantiating some of the allegations also raised the whistle-blower's ire. For example, the NRC failed to substantiate the charge that Progress managers have tried to prevent vehicles entering the plant's protected area from being thoroughly searched, saying interviews of guards "did not result in the identification of any information that indicated plant management had tried to prevent or disrupt vehicle searches." The guard insists he knows of incidents in which guards were instructed not to search trucks entering the protected area, but the NRC apparently disregarded those reports.
Another allegation was that special magnetic switches that let plant personnel know when a gate is open were gutted on some gates. While the NRC confirmed the existence of gutted switches, it said the switches were not an "integral part" of gate security and therefore the concern was not substantiated.
"If that's true, why were the switches installed to begin with?" the guard asks.
The whistle-blower guard was already dubious about the NRC because it failed to take action on complaints he and other guards filed about Harris security until N.C. WARN, UCS and the media got involved. But the agency's interim report--with its bureaucratic language and eagerness to forgive Progress its security sins--has shattered any remaining trust he had not only in the NRC but in the nuclear industry in general.
"I went to work at Harris totally pro-nuclear, thinking people like Jim Warren [head of N.C. WARN] were crackpots," he says. "But I'm completely anti-nuclear now. I don't think they can be trusted."
Correction (April 5, 2006): This article dropped a phrase in print. In discussing the NRC's conclusion that broken locks on doors were not a security threat, a sentence should have said the guard "also disputes the NRC's assurance that Progress [Energy] took compensatory measures such as stationing an armed guard every time a door failed."