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A prank? Yes. A serious breach in security and a potential safety issue at a nuclear plant? Of course.

That is exactly what happened at the Perry nuclear power plant when a couple of contractors left goldfish swimming in a pitcher of radioactive water in a restricted area of the plant outside of Cleveland, OH,

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Two contact workers, both foremen, confessed to smuggling not two but five goldfish into the power plant in April during an extended maintenance shutdown. Another four workers admitted to knowing about the prank but not reporting it.

Todd Schneider, spokesman for Perry’s owner FirstEnergy Corp., said “comprehensive and thorough” interviews of a handful of suspected workers cracked the case.

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“These contractors indicated they were playing a practical joke,” said Schneider. Apparently, the two men smuggled the fish in juice box containers inside a lunch box.

The end result is the six could end up banned from working in another U.S. nuclear power plant, according to industry standards. And they could lose their union cards, preventing them from working on any union construction job, a union official said.

“Behavior such as that exhibited by these contractor individuals will not be tolerated” at any FirstEnergy nuclear facility, Schneider said.

The men were part of a company retained by FirstEnergy to check and repair insulation in the plant.

Jim Grogan, general president of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers, called the incident “a disgrace, an absolute disgrace. Some of them are facing expulsion from the union,” Grogan said.

The union requires its members to train under and agree to a “professional craftsman code of conduct,” he said. Violating that code can lead to expulsion from the union. There will be hearings at the local level, Grogan said.

The men admitted to putting two of the smuggled fish into a pitcher of reactor water and hiding the container in a steam tunnel.

Perry’s own employees found the fish in the lemonade pitcher on April 30 while dismantling some scaffolding in the tunnel. Both the fish and the reactor water were slightly radioactive. The fish died within hours after workers found them.

The workers confessed to putting three other fish in a small container in an equipment staging area. Workers never found those fish which they feel ended up thrown out when they cleaned up the area before the reactor restarted, the company said.

FirstEnergy has said it screens all workers daily for explosives and weapons, not fish or lunchboxes.

The six insulation workers were among 1,000 outside workers hired during Perry’s shutdown this spring for refueling and maintenance.

Federal rules and industry standards require the company train contractors on how to work safely around a reactor and how they should conduct themselves.

Now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) wants to know more about that training and the company’s investigation into the prank.

A team of eight NRC inspectors are on schedule to visit Perry next week to complete the agency’s investigation of the plant’s rules and procedures for protecting workers from radiation exposure. The goldfish incident will be one more item added to the agenda.

“Now that FirstEnergy has completed its investigation, we will review the results from a regulatory perspective,” said NRC Midwest spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng.

That includes how the company handles “access to high radiation locked areas,” she said. Even though the outsiders have admitted to the goldfish prank, FirstEnergy is still responsible, she said.

“They are responsible for their contractors as well as their employees,” Mitlyng said. “They have to make sure contractors are aware of NRC regulations as well as internal plants procedures.”

Perry’s managers initially thought they would be able to easily identify the culprits because the tunnel is under 24-hour video surveillance.

The tunnel houses pipes carrying radioactive steam from the reactor to the turbine in a nearby building. The tunnel itself is radioactive and anyone entering it must first pass through a radiological checkpoint, which creates a record.

The company used that record to narrow its search for the culprits. But radiological rules also require that anyone entering the tunnel wear a radiation suit, including a hood. That made identifying the pranksters difficult and led to weeks of interrogation, with the okay of local unions.

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