The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday raided four Southern California companies that allegedly sold counterfeit circuit breakers to nuclear power plants.
Officials said the firms sold used circuit breakers as new and then gave them labels from prominent companies. Some of the devices are used in nuclear power plants, but how many is unknown, the NRC said.
Preliminary investigations by the federal agency have not turned up any cases in which the questionable circuit breakers were used in critical areas of nuclear plants, according to Robert Marsh, director of the NRC’s office of investigations in San Francisco.
But the same models of circuit breakers are used for a variety of purposes at the plants, including activating safety systems during an emergency, Marsh said.
Business records and circuit breakers were seized at Panelboard Specialties in Lake Elsinore, Rosen Electric Equipment in Pico Rivera, Dan Luckow Electric in Van Nuys and Luckow Circuit Breaker in Santa Ana.
Spokesmen for the companies could not be reached for comment.
The raids began about 10 a.m. after U.S. Magistrate John R. Kronenberg in Los Angeles granted the NRC’s request for search warrants, Marsh said.
“We are searching for any circuit breakers that have been remanufactured and have counterfeit labels affixed to them,” said Marsh.
Business records should indicate which nuclear plants bought the circuit breakers, he said.
Plant safety systems rely on circuit breakers to trigger equipment that cools reactor fuel with water in an emergency. If the circuit breakers are not activated when needed, a plant could conceivably release dangerous radiation under a worst-case scenario, NRC officials said.
Marsh said the four companies were buying used circuit breakers and then passing them off as new to utilities and other distributors. “They purchase used electrical materials and refurbish them to appear to be new and then they affix counterfeit manufacturing labels and trademarks and Underwriters Laboratory certifications to the circuit breakers, and then they sell them as new,” he said.
NASA Involved in Raids
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also participated in Tues day’s raids because some counterfeit circuit breakers have been found in computers and other equipment at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to Daniel Bromley, director of the NASA Office of the Inspector General at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena.
“The intent behind this search is to continue our investigation of counterfeit electrical components finding their way into power plants,” said Marsh. “We are continuing to expand our investigations to further identify any other sources of these bogus and counterfeit parts.”
The NRC raided five Los Angeles-area firms in early July for allegedly selling counterfeit breakers also intended for use in nuclear plants. Sold as new, the parts were actually refurbished and failed to pass some of the requirements of the Underwriters Laboratory, a non-profit testing agency. They bore labels falsely identifying them as brands of companies such as Square D, Westinghouse and General Electric.
No charges have yet been filed in the wake of those raids, but the five companies still are under investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office, officials said.
In that case, Pacific Gas & Electric had purchased 30 of the allegedly counterfeit circuit breakers from an authorized distributor for use in its Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near San Luis Obispo. Southern California Edison found some of the suspect breakers in the inventory for its San Onofre plant south of San Clemente.
The NRC has told utilities that more than 50 companies may be involved in counterfeiting circuit breakers and other electrical components.
Suspect circuit breakers are just one type of substandard part recently discovered in the nation’s nuclear plants.
At the request of a congressional committee studying substandard nuts and bolts, the NRC tested 137 fasteners in use at 16 nuclear plants and found that about 20% failed to meet specifications. Some of the substandard fasteners were used in safety-related areas, although the NRC said they pose no threat to the public.
Substandard flanges and fittings have also been sold for use in nuclear plants, the NRC said.
NRC Chairman Lando Zech Jr. told a group of government officials in August that “we do believe the extent of these potentially substandard components is serious.”
The NRC, he added, was “confident this problem has implications, not just to NRC activities but to a wide range of industries where public health and safety could be affected.”