Operators in the control room of an Entergy Corp. nuclear reactor spent long periods browsing a variety of Web sites -- catching up on news and reading about fishing -- while they were supposed to be monitoring the plant's operations with undivided attention, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
On Monday, the NRC said Entergy faced $140,000 in civil fines for the violations at its River Bend Station, a nuclear plant about 25 miles north of Baton Rouge.
The NRC said that between January and April 2010, nine operators surfed the Internet on a computer in the control room while they were on duty, supposedly monitoring the reactor's control panels, computers and alarm systems.
"Control room operators are directly responsible for monitoring the reactor and other important plant systems to ensure that it is operated safely. Plant procedures require operators to remain attentive and focused on their work," the NRC said.
NRC classified the fine against Entergy a Level III violation. The NRC uses a sliding scale to rank violations, with Level I being the most severe and Level IV the least severe.
Regulators said the operators visited a range of sites, among them news, sports, fishing and retirement account Web sites. Victor Dricks, a NRC spokesman, noted that the operators did not surf pornographic sites.
Dricks said the operators hid their Internet use from supervisors. He said the computer they used was not connected to the reactor's system and therefore no one could hack into it and compromise the reactor.
Internet was inadvertently restored on the computer the operators used and a shift manager discovered the operators' misuse in April 2010, officials said. Dricks said Entergy notified regulators about the violations.
Entergy, though, was penalized for not taking steps fast enough to improve the plant's overall safety.
"While the licensee has since taken steps to correct the problem and ensure it doesn't happen again, they did not promptly address the larger safety culture issue," said Elmo E. Collins, an NRC regional administrator.
Mike Bowling, an Entergy spokesman, said a full-blown program to improve safety at the plant was carried out in April 2011.
But he disagreed with the NRC about whether the operators were distracted while they surfed the Internet.
"Based on our investigation, the operators remained attentive," he said. "We approached it as a violation of procedure."
The NRC said three of the operators were on the net frequently -- what the NRC said amounted to Level III violations -- and that the six other operators used the Internet less frequently, or what it considered Level IV violations. Dricks said the operators did not face fines or other penalties from regulators and that any disciplinary action against them would be conducted by Entergy.
Entergy said disciplinary action was taken, but it declined to say what action had been taken against the operators.
Entergy has 30 days to contest the fines.