Nuclear plant gets high mark for safety

Peach Bottom has improved security in light of terrorism

Mock attacks test defenses

March 30, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The Peach Bottom nuclear power plant, just across the Pennsylvania border from Cardiff, has been awarded high marks for safety in its annual assessment by federal regulators.

"They operated in a manner that protected the health and public safety" of the people living near the plant last year, said Mohamed Shanbaky, an official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He was speaking to a small gathering at the NRC's annual safety performance review meeting Wednesday evening at the Peach Bottom Inn in Delta, Pa.

Shanbaky is branch chief of the NRC's office in King of Prussia, Pa., which has primary responsibility for annual safety inspections of the Peach Bottom plant.

Good report card

The plant scored the equivalent of a high school student getting six A's and a B-plus on a report card.

The plant, which operates two nuclear reactors, received a white performance grade - the second-highest - during the second quarter of the year in emergency preparedness.

The NRC report cited Exelon Generation Co., the operator of the plant, for mishandling a carbon dioxide leak in a generator room in June.

Anthony McMurtray, the senior on-site inspector for the NRC, said the company waited about 37 minutes before notifying local emergency officials of the plant's alert status. The plant was also cited for defects in several speakers that are part of a public address system used to notify workers of emergencies.

McMurtray said both issues were addressed and corrected.

Security concerns

During the public meeting, Nelson Newcomer, who said he lives in Lancaster, Pa., asked the NRC and Exelon officials about security steps to prevent terrorists from getting into the plant by taking jobs as subcontractors.

He said he fears that once inside the factory, terrorists could hide explosives that could later be detonated by radio control. Newcomer said he would never have thought of asking such a question before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Company officials assured Newcomer that everyone entering the plant is carefully screened and patted down if a security alarm is set off.

Rusty West, a vice president of Exelon, said "everyone goes through a screening, no matter what their level, including top executives."

West told residents that the plant has taken a number of actions over the past two years to improve security. He said they involved the installation of enhanced security equipment, additional security barriers, increased security staffing and more training for security officials.

To test the plant's security measures, West said, the company stages what he called "force on force drills," which involve outsider groups, including retired Navy SEALs, who act as terrorists and try to penetrate the plant's defense barrier.

"We know what day they are coming," West said. "But the hour is a surprise." The exercise is done to determine whether there are any cracks in the plant's defense system.

West said the plant has also taken steps to improve its coordination with state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the state police, the FBI and the CIA, during an emergency.

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