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NRC: Nuclear technicians surfed web on the job

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon January 9, 2012
The River Bend nuclear power station is located 24 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The River Bend nuclear power station is located 24 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NRC wants to fine operators of Louisiana nuclear plant $140,000
  • Nine technicians spent on-duty time surfing the Internet, the NRC says
  • NRC: "Accessing the Internet... has the potential to distract the licensed operator"
  • The plant's parent company did not immediately respond to a call

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Nine technicians responsible for monitoring operations at a Louisiana nuclear power plant spent on-duty time surfing the Internet -- visiting websites that included news, sports, fishing and retirement information -- jeopardizing the safety of the plant, federal regulators say.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission disclosed the web-surfing activities Monday in a letter that proposes a $140,000 fine against the River Bend nuclear power station, 24 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.

No pornography sites were accessed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said. And importantly, the NRC said, the computer use did not present an avenue for hackers to gain access to reactor control systems, a modern-day fear at industrial plants.

But the NRC said the web-surfing control room operators were directly responsible for monitoring the reactor and other plant systems, and that their actions violated plant procedures requiring operators to remain attentive and focused on their work.

According to an NRC investigation, nine operators "deliberately violated" the safety procedures by surfing the web between January and April of 2010. Three of the nine did so with such frequency and duration that they are being issued "severity level three enforcement violations." (Severity level one represents the greatest significant violation and severity level four is the lowest.) The remaining six operators will receive severity level four violations.

The operators were not named by the NRC.

An NRC spokesman said the proposed fine for web surfing is the only such action for web surfing in memory, and may be the only such action in the history of the agency.

In a notice to Entergy Operations Inc., operators of the River Bend Station, the NRC said that it appears that operators "remained attentive to reactor operations, indications, and alarms" while surfing the Internet.

"However, because most of the operators involved knew and understood" the prohibitions on Internet access, they exhibited "deliberate misconduct" and engaged in "hundreds of instances" of accessing the Internet from the "at-the-controls" area of the control room.

"This violation is a serious concern to the NRC not only because accessing the Internet ... has the potential to distract the licensed operator," the NRC said, but also because of the "large number of licensed reactor operators" who deliberately chose to ignore the ban.

The NRC chastised the plant, saying that while River Bend Station "had strong evidence that a safety culture problem existed," comprehensive actions were not taken for "at least a year."

NRC regional administrator Elmo Collins said in the letter that River Bend's "particularly poor performance" in responding to the problem merited doubling the base fine of $70,000 to $140,000.

If Entergy Operations disagrees with the enforcement action and proposed fine, the company can request a neutral mediator to explore a resolution, according to the NRC.

Entergy Operations Inc. did not immediately respond to a call.

CNN's Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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