NORTH PERRY, Ohio - The Perry Nuclear Generating Station near Cleveland is under intense scrutiny by Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors, who have uncovered a pattern of safety violations inside the plant.
The plant, located 35 miles east of Cleveland in the small community of North Perry, opened in 1987 and produces enough electricity to power one million homes.
But lately, Perry has been generating headlines.
Chuck Casto is a Nuclear Regulatory Commission Regional Administrator who is overseeing ongoing inspections at the plant following a series of safety violations involving workers inside the plant.
"It starts to worry you about the spread," Casto said. "Are problems spreading?"
Our exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation obtained NRC inspections reports, letters from regulators to FirstEnergy, which owns the plant, and gained rare access to the NRC's "Incident Response Center" that monitors nuclear plants around the clock from a control center in Chicago, 300 miles away.
We found that safety problems at Perry in 2011 triggered an NRC response that dropped the plant two full safety levels to what it refers to as a "Column Three" plant, a "degraded" category that's shared with only two of 104 nuclear plants in the entire country.
"They were in 'Column Three' because they had several issues in the worker protection area," Casto said. "Also they had one issue in security, which, obviously, I am not going to talk about."
Casto said the security issues was resolved, but Perry violated federal safety regulations when workers, in April 2011, removed an instrument from deep inside the reactors core.
"They misunderstood the conditions," Casto said. "That instrument was highly radioactive." Casto called it a "near miss" of "significantly overexposing some workers."
But our exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation reveals that problems continue at the plant.
Last March, NRC inspectors found "performance at the plant continued to exhibit weaknesses." And in June, low level radioactive wastewater spilled onto the floor.
Jennifer Young is a FirstEnergy spokeswoman who said a pipe broke while moving from a storage tank to a shipping container.
But documents obtained by NewsChannel 5 indicate the company waited six months before it ultimately found that an "emergency condition" should have been declared under NRC regulations.
"After some discussion with the NRC and after some discussion internally, we said we probably should look at right by where the spill was--how much did it go up," Young said.
It turns out that FirstEnergy failed to properly calculate radiation levels until a review of the incident last November, resulting in what the company calls "equivalent to a catscan." Even so, an NRC report into the spill called the incident a "performance deficiency."
Meanwhile, a former employee at the plant claims he was fired for alerting NRC inspectors to potential safety violations.
"It shows that people are violating basic safety procedures and if they don't care about their own safety, how can they care about your's or the community's?" Bryan Reo said.
FirstEnergy denied Reo's allegations and said "all those were investigated at the time they were raised and none of those cases did we substantiate a safety concern."
The NRC's ongoing probe of safety at Perry is also being followed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that follows energy issues.
David Lochbaum is a nuclear engineer and the organization's nuclear safety director, as well as a former NRC instructor.
"So far, the radiation breakdowns haven't resulted in excessive exposure to workers," Lochbaum said. "But in many cases, that was more luck than skill."
FirstEnergy said it is working hard to correct deficiencies at the plant and improve workers safety. Even so, the NRC has given the company a strong warning.
"We need to see behavior changes in terms of worker behavior with radiation," Casto said. "Those changes need to be procedure changes and the need to be sustainable."
If not, Lochbaum said he believes the NRC is "running out of patience" with FirstEnergy and the future of the plant could be in jeopardy.
"If progress isn't made in short order, six months, the next, more onerous step could be taken by the NRC which could include shutting the plant down until these fixes are made."
The NRC expects to complete its series of investigations in the plant safety by this spring.