Safety changes follow ‘unusual’ death and 17 hour gap at nuclear power plant

Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog

While federal officials continue to insist a recent death inside a southeast Nebraska nuclear power plant was not a security issue Nebraska Watchdog has learned that at the very least safety questions are on the table.

Ronald Nurney went unseen for 17 hours before he was found dead inside the Brownville, NE nuclear power plant

In addition the comings and goings of workers at the plant are apparently receiving added attention.

All this as the cause of death has been made official—a heart attack—with no idea when the worker died.

According to an exclusive investigation by Nebraska Watchdog, 66-year-old Ronald Nurney, a safety worker from Virginia who monitored critical radiation levels, went unseen for 17 hours before he was found dead on the refueling floor of the Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville nearly two months ago.

Eliot Brenner, Public Affairs Director for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says “there perhaps maybe an OSHA issue” tied to the “unusual” circumstances surrounding the contract worker’s on-the-job death.

But federal safety folks don’t see it that way.

“There is not an open OSHA investigation into the death at Cooper Nuclear Station,” says OSHA spokesperson Rhonda Burke.

At the same time though the plant’s managers have “revised accountability procedures” to keep better track of workers.

Nebraska Public Power District spokesman Mark Becker says new checks are in place to cover cases where workers are at the reactor for long periods of time.

Becker explains in an email to Nebraska Watchdog:

Mark Becker: Security instituted a check of personnel badged into the Protected Area at Cooper Nuclear Station. This check is performed twice each day at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Security then reviews the list to see if anyone has been badged into the Protective Area for more than 12 hours. If an individual has been badged in for more than 12 hours, Security will follow up with the individual to verify their wellbeing.

But for Nurney’s wife, Donna, it’s too little too late.

Ronald Nurney’s death certificate listing his “Date of Death”

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

And while the NRC admits closed circuit cameras failed to spot Nurney, Brenner stands by earlier statements from regulatory officials that downplay security questions.

“As tragic as this individual’s death was, and as unusual as the circumstances were, the relevant NRC staff does not believe there is a security issue,” says Brenner.

Nurney, whose body was found at 7:38 a.m. Feb. 4, was “last seen working at the plant around 2 p.m.” the day before, according to NPPD’s Becker.

Ronald Nurney’s “Time of Death” listed as “Unknown” on his death certificate

Nurney’s death certificate, signed by Nemaha County Attorney Louie Ligouri, does little to clear up his final minutes or hours.

In the “Date of Death” box the words “Found February 4, 2014” are crossed out (see photo) replaced with “February 3, 2014.”

And the time of Nurney’s death is simply recorded as “Unknown.”

According to a report from the Nemaha County Sheriff’s department, Nurney entered the plant at approximately 7 a.m. Feb. 3, before entering the refueling floor at 12:55 p.m., he was to be off work at 4:30 that afternoon.

Donna Nurney says she’s heard speculation 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.

“He wasn’t found sooner because he went in at the end of a shift and he was not found until the next shift,” NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said shortly after the incident. “When he entered the plant, the protected area, he passed through security and security knew he was in the plant.”

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.”

According to the sheriff’s report Nurney’s body was found “slumped over” a railing.

Becker says the railing was behind the large equipment, adding both accounts “would be accurate.”

Contact Joe Jordan at joe@nebraskawatchdog.org

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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