Exclusive: 17 hour gap ‘haunts’ death at nuclear power plant


Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog

Donna Nurney wants to know how.

How did her husband, who died inside a critical section of the Cooper Nuclear Station in southeast Nebraska, go unseen for hours—17 hours, according to an exclusive investigation by Nebraska Watchdog.

Ronald Nurney

But that question and other security related questions are being downplayed by officials in the aftermath of Ron Nurney’s on-the-job death.

Although the exact cause of death has not been released officials believe Nurney, a safety worker who monitored critical radiation levels, died of natural causes not foul play or contamination.

At the same time though Nebraska Watchdog has learned that before he was found dead on the Brownville reactor’s fueling floor—which is tied to the heart of the system— the 66-year-old contract worker from Virginia had been off the plant’s radar screen from midday February 3rd until the following morning: a 17 hour gap.

Nurney, whose body was found at 7:38 a.m February 4 was “last seen working at the plant around 2 p.m” the day before, according to Nebraska Public Power District spokesman Mark Becker.

Brownville, Nebraska

According to a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Nurney entered the refueling floor “at the end of a shift and he was not found until the next shift.”

Donna Nurney says she’s heard speculation that her husband probably died about 5 p.m., 14 hours before his body was discovered.

But she has no idea if he suffered. She says that possibility “haunts” her as does the plant’s security.

“I just don’t understand how anybody in a nuclear power plant can go missing for that long and nobody look for him,” she tells Nebraska Watchdog.

NPPD’s Becker says Nurney “collapsed” behind a large piece of equipment in a remote storage area which, because the plant was in full operation, saw “little traffic moving through this floor of the building.”

In an interview with Nebraska Watchdog, NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said ”there are security cameras in the area” but he acknowledges that there are blind spots.

Dricks: (The cameras) are not always able to see every part of that floor.

Nebraska Watchdog: The security cameras don’t automatically pick up all of that area?

Dricks: No. There are cameras in the area but the view may have been obscured by the fact that there’s a lot of equipment. And so the cameras were not able to see this individual.

Don’t tell that to Donna Nurney.

“If somebody died at Walmart would it take them 16 and a half hours to find them,” she says.

According to Dricks the area where Nurney’s body was found “is not normally visited by security guards or other radiation protection personnel.”

Nebraska Watchdog: Is it clear why he was in there?

Dricks: He was supposed to be there. He was part of the work force brought in to prepare the movement of fuel from the reactor, or the pool, to dry cast storage.

Nebraska Watchdog: And no security concerns as to why he wasn’t found sooner?

Dricks: Well he wasn’t found sooner because he went in at the end of a shift and he was not found until the next shift. When he entered the plant, the protected area, he passed through security and security knew he was in the plant.

Nebraska Watchdog: And they weren’t concerned when he didn’t come back out?

Dricks: No, no. Because it’s not unusual for people to work long shifts.

Nebraska Watchdog: So he was there beyond his shift?

Dricks: I don’t know that he was there beyond his shift. I don’t want to speculate about that.

Nebraska Watchdog: Is the NRC looking into this?

Dricks: No the licensee (NPPD) has reviewed it and we’ve looked at it and said it looked OK to us.

NPPD says it believes Nurney, a radiation protection worker, died of natural causes and the Nemaha County Sheriff’s department says there’s no indication of “anything criminal.”

A spokesman for the Virginia funeral home which handled Nurney’s services says it’s not clear when the official autopsy results will be known.

Nemaha County Attorney Louie Ligouri, who is also the coroner, has not responded to Nebraska Watchdog’s questions regarding Nurney’s death.

Questions that Donna Nurney wants answered.

Contact Joe Jordan at joe@nebraskawatchdog.org and listen to Joe every Monday morning at 7:40 on KFAB radio in Omaha.

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