Case of accused arsonist highlights nuclear safety concerns in SC

03/20/2014 9:20 PM

03/20/2014 9:22 PM

The story of an accused arsonist’s employment at a South Carolina nuclear plant ended quietly when SCE&G learned more about the criminal charges and fired him.

But while the man isn’t believed to have been a threat to safety at the V.C. Summer power plant, experts say his hiring underscores the need to thoroughly check prospective employees before putting them on the payroll and giving them access to atomic energy plants.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week cited SCE&G for not completely checking the worker’s background and allowing him “unescorted access” to the nuclear plant about 25 miles northwest of Columbia.

SCE&G has re-evaluated procedures and will present its experience at a conference to educate other utilities. NRC officials also banned the employee, a one-time volunteer firefighter from Mississippi, from working at a nuclear plant for the next five years.

“This is relatively minor, but it is a good chance to recalibrate everybody so they’ll do better in the future,” said David Lochbaum, an atomic plant safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“There will be people who try to exploit the seams, and the better you are at (catching problems) the less likely those people will be successful.”

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said the agency’s citation was intended to raise awareness to prevent questionable hires in the future at nuclear plants.

The concern isn’t so much that a person with a past criminal conviction or charge would want to sabotage a plant, although that is a possible issue. The greater concern is that such a person might not be truthful about problems in a nuclear facility, he said.

“It is an issue of trustworthiness,” Hannah said, noting that the incident at SCE&G’s plant is rare. “You want somebody who basically is an honest person.”

Lochbaum said the U.S. averages a few cases each year in which people with questionable backgrounds are hired at nuclear plants, but often it is someone simply looking for a job.

In the SCE&G case, a company contractor hired the firefighter in the fall of 2010, some six months after he was accused in Mississippi of intentionally setting fire to open land.

The worker, identified in NRC and court documents as Michael P. Cooley, was at the time facing arson charges in Mississippi. But the NRC said he failed to disclose an accurate disposition of the case and provided a false document about the case. V.C. Summer officials did not properly check that out before he was employed, the NRC said. Cooley had unescorted access to the Summer plant until March 2011, when he was let go.

Cooley has since entered a pretrial diversion program in Mississippi that could allow him to have arson charges erased from his record, according to documents filed in George County, Miss.

“He is not somebody that I typically come across in my criminal practice,” said Calvin Taylor, a Pascagoula, Miss., lawyer who represented Cooley. “He’s just not a criminal. He’s a hard worker.”

A pretrial diversion document said Cooley is unlikely to become involved in further criminal activity.

Nonetheless, SCE&G’s program of allowing access to its plant failed to provide assurance that workers are trustworthy and do not present “the potential to commit radiological sabotage,” the NRC said an order released Monday. The NRC said SCE&G has not found other examples of similar cases involving plant workers.

At the Summer plant, Cooley worked as an environmental health and safety specialist, a job that Hannah said would not provide him access to the most sensitive parts of the plant.

“We understand and take very seriously our responsibility for ensuring that individuals who are granted unescorted access to our nuclear facilities are trustworthy and reliable, which is why we maintain a comprehensive accesses control program,” SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said in a statement Monday. “We’re taking steps to further strengthen this already rigorous program, which is another example of how our company and the nuclear industry at large are striving for continuous improvement and learning from past instances.”

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