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NRC spots problem during nuclear power plant safety drill

| Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Beaver Valley nuclear power plant may have failed part of an April federal safety drill in which mock intruders attack the plant, federal regulators and the plant owners said on Monday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission spotted a problem during the “force-on-force” test, in which plant security and staged saboteurs battle with laser guns and other simulated weapons, according to plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The commission has not made a final ruling on how severe the problem was, but plant officials corrected it before the inspectors left, according to the commission.

Its spokesman and a spokeswoman at FirstEnergy, Pennsylvania's largest electricity provider, declined to detail the issue. The company claims the plant's problem may have been the way it conducted the exercise, and not an actual security failure. It has asked to appeal any finding that the problem went beyond the lowest level of severity, spokeswoman Jennifer Young said from the company's Akron headquarters.

“The good news for people living nearby is that the NRC came in and identified these security problems during an intensive test,” said Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The poor showing is embarrassing to the company. Had these vulnerabilities been found by real bad guys, the poor showing would have graver implications.”

The NRC has a four-level, color-coded scale for security violations, with a green violation at the bottom, very low significance. Federal officials found six problems at the green level and one potentially beyond it, according to a letter it sent to the plant manager on Aug. 8.

The test was routine, but the plant has had a string of incidents. Another undisclosed security problem from August 2012 put the plant under increased federal scrutiny. Inspectors had to make a return visit this July because of dozens of minor problems that turned up last year when they conducted an assessment of how well the plant could withstand an earthquake.

The agency released the letter on Monday as it announced a meeting with FirstEnergy officials on Sept. 5. The company had asked for the meeting, which it is entitled to as regulators review their findings before a final determination. The commission has not yet cited the company for a violation, pending the review, the letter said.

Only one plant had a similar problem and simulated damage during the commission's 23 different inspections in 2012, according to the commission's annual report. That's a typical year, said Lochbaum, adding that Beaver Valley “was certainly below par” when considering both its larger problem and its six low-level problems. Eleven plants last year had those kinds of low-level problems, averaging about two each.

“It's not uncommon to have some green violations in any inspections. Of course, we don't want them,” Young said. “We take all of these findings very seriously. We look at these as an opportunity to improve our already strong security system there.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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