COLUMBIA, SC — A suspected arsonist spent several months working at SCE&G’s nuclear power plant in Fairfield County after the company failed to properly screen the contract employee, records show.
SCE&G’s misstep allowed the employee access to the V.C. Summer plant and potentially exposed the facility to the threat of “radiological sabotage” while the employee worked there in late 2010, according to federal documents released Tuesday by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The power company fired the worker in early 2011 and has promised to improve procedures, the NRC said. The utility will outline its shortcomings at a nuclear conference this year and already has ramped up training, records show.
NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said the employee was a U.S. citizen and was not suspected of terrorism. But Hannah said the federal government does not take the situation lightly.
Access violations like the one at V.C. Summer are uncommon, he said. In seeking a job at Summer, the contract worker said in employment documents that a criminal charge against him had been resolved, when it had not. Records show SCE&G failed to verify that.
“We take every access violation like that seriously,” Hannah said. “Obviously you don’t want someone in the plant who has lied about something in their background because that individual is not very trustworthy.”
Documents released by the NRC show that the employee was an environmental health and safety specialist for Stone & Webster/Shaw, a contractor to SCE&G.
Hannah declined to name the worker or say whether he was convicted on the arson charge. He said the agency doesn’t provide such information, deferring instead to law enforcement. It was not known Tuesday in what jurisdiction the individual faced arson charges. The NRC banned the worker from agency-licensed facilities for five years.
Records released by the NRC say the power company’s access authorization program “failed to provide a high assurance” that people granted access to the plant are reliable and do not constitute an “unreasonable risk” to public health, safety or security at a nuclear plant. That includes “the potential to commit radiological sabotage,” according to an NRC order signed Monday by the agency.
SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower defended his company’s actions, saying the utility self-reported the problem after one of the employee’s co-workers flagged SCE&G about the employee. The company maintains the worker’s access to the plant never compromised safety. Hannah agreed.
Among other things, the worker provided a false document to conceal key facts about criminal charges, federal records show.
“This was an instance of intentional fraud perpetrated by a contractor,” Boomhower said in an email to The State newspaper. “After notifying the NRC, we conducted a comprehensive evaluation of our access authorization program and implemented extensive corrective actions which the NRC agrees appropriately address the causes which gave rise to the incident.”
The NRC did not report that it fined SCE&G but said it came to an agreement after mediation sessions with SCE&G. The agreement says the company must improve its oversight, which it has agreed to do.
SCE&G operates the V.C. Summer nuclear plant near Jenkinsville, a small community about 25 miles northwest of Columbia. The utility is now building two additional reactors there at a cost of about $10 billion.
The Sierra Club’s Tom Clements, a longtime anti-nuclear activist, said SCE&G’s failure to properly screen an applicant for employment worries him. A major concern for nuclear safety is hiring someone who later can do damage while working at an atomic energy plant, he said.
“The biggest risk is someone who might have nefarious goals who already is inside the plant and employed there,” Clements said. “They can either do something harmful on their own or facilitate action from the outside. Anytime you have a security problem on the inside, in my opinion, it is much more serious.”