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Personal web surfing in the nuclear control room draws $140K NRC fine

Personal web surfing in the nuclear control room draws $140K NRC fine

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Cyber hopping is okay if you're a bored travel agent or a procrastinating journalist. But it's a no-no when consequences can be lethal. What were 9 operators at Louisiana's River Bend plant watching?

River Bend nuclear plant and internet club, near Baton Rouge, La.

Nuclear Technician: "The core is melting! The core is melting!"

Nuclear Control Room Operator: "Oh, okay. Hang on a minute while I finish watching the replay of the Bronco's overtime touchdown against the Steelers. I can't believe they shredded the league's best defense."

Yes, I made up that glib little dialogue. But it captures - alright, exaggerates - the spirit of an alarming piece of news coming from the River Bend nuclear power plant near Baton Rouge, La., where 9 control room operators upset the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by surfing the Internet for personal reasons while on duty.

Cyber hopping may be okay for a bored travel agent or even a procrastinating journalist, but at a nuclear power plant, it can be an NRC no-no. A lot like with air traffic control, when you're dealing with potential lethal consequences, it seems reasonable to ask that employees pay undivided attention to their work.

So the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) is proposing a $140,000 fine against the plant's operator, Entergy Operations Inc.

The naughty nine visited sports websites, including fishing pages. Above, a smallmouth bass, common in Louisiana.

"Control room operators are directly responsible for monitoring the reactor and other important plant systems to ensure that it is operated safely," the NRC says in a press release. "Plant procedures require operators to remain attentive and focused on their work. Between January and April 2010, nine operators deliberately violated those procedures and accessed the internet from the plant's control room while on duty."

The NRC is slapping "severity level III" violations on three of the individual, and "severity level IV" on the other six. Level I is the most severe on the NRC's scale of I through IV. The NRC also faulted Entergy for not acting fast enough once it found out about the transgressions at the 978 megawatt, 22-year-old plant.

The naughty nine viewed sports, news, and retirement account websites, according to the NRC. CNN reports that they did not visit porn sites. Apparently there's already plenty of hot stuff at the reactor.

Images: River Bend plant, Entergy. Fish, Duane Raver, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure