In what is apparently the first regulatory action of its kind since 9/11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week proposed a $65,000 fine against North Carolina-based Progress Energy for security violations at its Shearon Harris nuclear power plant near Raleigh.

The fine is for an incident in which three supervisors employed by security contractor Securitas Security Services USA handed out answers to guards during written re-qualification exams. The NRC also announced it was issuing notices of violation against Securitas and the supervisors. Neither Progress nor Securitas will contest the findings, the NRC said.

The actions conclude an investigation sparked in late 2005 when the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed a formal complaint with the NRC alleging security lapses at the Harris plant. The complaint (pdf) was based on accounts of problems reported to the watchdogs by whistle-blowing security guards after the NRC ignored their complaints.

Guards said they believe the forced cheating occurred because Securitas was chronically short on guards and couldn't afford to lose anyone who might fail the exam. The watchdogs' complaint said the practice was "eerily reminiscent" of widespread cheating on exams by operators at one unit of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania during efforts to restart it following the partial meltdown of its sister unit.

In interim findings issued in March 2006, the NRC confirmed seven other charges in the initial complaint -- including the fact that the plant had left doors to highly sensitive areas inoperable, some possibly for years. As one of the guards said at the time the initial complaint was filed:

"The first time the lock on the door of your house opens without a key, you're going to get a new lock, right? Progress knows these doors at the plant are not secured, and it hasn't fixed them. And these doors are about the worst possible doors on the East Coast to not be secured."

The Harris plant houses one of the nation's largest stockpiles of highly radioactive spent fuel.

Another charge that the NRC claimed it could not confirm was validated last year when the state labor department ordered several guards reinstated after being fired for reporting injuries. And last October, a state licensing board cited Securitas for various violations involving licensing requirements for guards.

The serious security problems at the Harris plant coupled with the NRC's failure to address the problems before outside groups got involved underscore concerns about the nuclear industry's current expansion plans.

Progress is currently seeking a 20-year license extension for the Harris plant. It had also entertained a proposal to increase reactor capacity there but earlier this year put that plan on hold in favor of promoting more energy conservation. However, it is still considering plans to build a new nuclear plant in Levy County, Fla., 8 miles north of its Crystal River Energy Complex.