Pursuit Of Metal Can be Costly, If Not Deadly

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

Copper is a valuable metal that, increasingly in recent years, has been the target of thieves hoping to pocket some quick cash by selling it to scrapyards.

copperPiping made with the material has been stolen from unoccupied homes and businesses. Copper downspouts have been snatched from churches. Even cemeteries have not been immune, as copper flag holders placed at the graves of veterans have been plundered. Cable-TV network CNBC reported in 2013 that copper thefts were ‘like an epidemic’ sweeping the nation.

Unfortunately, the energy sector has not been immune. In early January of this year, the Orlando Sentinel reported that thieves in central Florida had made off with about 42 miles of copper wire.

Non-radioactive copper wire also has been stolen from or close to switchyards located near several U.S. nuclear power plants. (No thefts from the “Protected Area,” or high-security, zone at the plants have occurred, and robust security measures help ensure that should continue to be the case.)

Some examples of the metal pilfering:

  • More than 1,400 pounds of scrap copper were stolen from a storage building near a switchyard at the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in April 2013. The building was located outside the security perimeter at the western Pennsylvania facility. Police subsequently arrested a mother and son in connection with the incident.
  • New York State Police announced in January 2013 that two workers at the Indian Point nuclear power plant had been charged with stealing several thousand pounds of copper and other scrap from the site. Tens of thousands of dollars from the sale of the spools of excess wire were pocketed by the now former employees, police said.
  • In August 2012, police arrested four individuals who made off with copper from multiple electrical substations in the Philadelphia suburbs, including one at the Limerick nuclear power plant. The theft almost cost one of the thieves his life in a near-electrocution.

Between security patrols and other NRC-required measures, U.S. nuclear power plants are among the most fortified parts of the energy infrastructure while switchyards have not been, generally speaking, subject to the same level of security attention. That said, the good news is the utilities that own and operate the switchyards have been taking steps to deter future thefts.

For instance, Con Edison, based in New York, announced last year that it had begun using markings on copper wire only visible under ultraviolet light, making it easier to track where the material originated and thereby identify theft suspects.

Also, Pennsylvania-headquartered PPL, which operates the Susquehanna nuclear power plant, said it was bolstering security measures at substations and notifying scrapyard owners to be on the lookout for large quantities of copper wire that could have been taken from switchyards. Further, FirstEnergy and Ohio Edison said last September that they planned to install security fencing and monitoring systems at some of its substations in an effort to deter metal thieves.

As with all issues that surface at U.S. power reactors, the NRC staff is always made aware when theft incidents occur, and the agency’s security and safety experts would engage plant operators on potential implications and preventive actions.

The sudden loss of power from a nearby switchyard could potentially impact the operations of a nuclear power plant, making it a very bad idea. But it’s also illegal and potentially fatal for the thief. As PPL put it when it rolled out its campaign, “Copper – It’s not to die for.”


Improving Our Aim for Consistent Reactor Oversight

Scott Morris
Director, Division of Inspection and Regional Support

Climate, geography and even accent may vary from state to state, but NRC’s regulations don’t, — and neither should our approach to applying them. So when someone suggests we might do a better job in consistently carrying out our mission, we listen carefully and act accordingly. We’ve followed this approach in following up on a September 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

npp3The GAO looked at how our Reactor Oversight Process objectively examines reactor safety based on inspection results and performance statistics. The report said we consistently and accurately respond to significant issues.

The GAO found, however, that the NRC’s four regional offices produced varied results when assessing the least-significant issues, such as improper maintenance for minor electrical transformers at a plant. While this programmatic variation fell short of creating a safety issue, the report recommended we look into this inconsistency.

Staff from our Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation studied the regions’ approach to evaluating the least safety-significant inspection findings. The study also examined regional differences in dealing with “non-escalated enforcement” matters — plants must correct these issues, but they frequently fall short of the criteria for a formal NRC finding.

The staff’s study consisted of conducting “table-top” exercises to see how each region reviewed very low-significance issues. The study listened to resident inspectors at the plants as well as region-based inspectors and their supervisors.

The staff’s study and discussions with regional management and staff, along with some employees at headquarters, led to a few conclusions. First, the staff confirmed the results of the GAO’s review that there are indeed regional differences in implementing some reactor oversight program guidance. Secondly, the NRC’s guidance could benefit from some clarification to help the inspectors when it comes to evaluating very-low-significance issues. Finally, the agency’s annual self-assessments of the entire oversight process to date have been focused on dealing with significant issues, so the assessments didn’t consider or evaluate the regional differences with the least safety-significant inspection findings. This meant the inconsistencies went on longer than they otherwise might have.

The staff’s study looked at potential causes for the varying regional approaches. One area showed the agency devotes a lot of effort to training but that training and knowledge management results weren’t always shared as widely as possible. This meant that potential inconsistencies in training across regions should be addressed. The staff’s study saw no connection between inspector experience and the regional differences.

The staff’s study showed that the NRC can improve its objectivity and predictability in dealing with very-low-significance inspection findings. Management in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation will consider changes that include enhancing review procedures, standardizing inspector training and revising the self-assessment process.

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