The Most Dangerous U.S. N-Plant? NRC's Dishonest Rating System – A Report by NC WARN
- May 23rd, 2006
Shearon Harris’ Failed Safety Record
Serious problems masked by NRC’s dishonest grading system
There is substantial evidence that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has long cooperated with nuclear power plant owners to hide major safety problems from the public. Multiple conditions that are ranked by NRC’s own studies as among the highest risk factors have remained uncorrected for 20 years or longer, resulting in a number of serious accidents and increasing the probability of a radiological disaster.
The deception began decades ago, when the NRC created the “Unresolved Safety Issues” category. An NRC manager told NRC Commissioners, “It was developed in order to get plants licensed without resolving significant safety questions …” 1
Later, NRC added “Generic Safety Issues” – problems shared by multiple plants – which allowed utilities to indefinitely delay correcting what NRC had otherwise deemed as high priority safety issues. These issues are excluded from each plant’s annual performance report while a “generic” solution is being studied. The category includes design flaws in backup cooling systems, inoperable safety equipment and other degraded conditions.
In short, the NRC has set up a system, called the Reactor Oversight Process, which allows NRC to delay or entirely avoid enforcing its own safety regulations. This system relies heavily on self-reporting by plant owners. As noted by the General Accounting Office, the NRC “resolves” generic issues without requiring safety improvements. It “requests” corrections but doesn’t verify them. And it continuously buckles to industry’s influence based on plant owners’ relentless pressure to minimize costs.
Even insurance carriers, from which plant owners must buy coverage for the small portion of accident costs not born by taxpayers, refuse to rely on NRC reports for determining each plant’s premiums. Instead they rely on a trade organization’s ratings that are kept secret from the public.
Under such NRC oversight, Three Mile Island was rated as the third best performer in NRC Region I just prior to its 1979 partial meltdown, and in 2002, Davis-Besse was rated number one in Region III just before plant workers discovered that corrosion had eaten almost entirely through the reactor vessel.
“The NRC performance review process is not a regulatory scheme, it’s a regulatory scam,” says nuclear safety engineer David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says NRC must be reformed by Congress “before post-mortem inquiries into a tragic nuclear accident – skipping the part where the health of thousands of Americans is harmed and a large region of our country is ruined for decades.”
With multiple recent examples of public safety being poorly protected by FEMA and other federal agencies, NRC’s negligence ranks among the greatest of risks.
[For more on efforts to hide nuclear plant safety problems from the public, see reports by Union of Concerned Scientists (such as Regulatory Malpractice), and Project on Government Oversight (Who the Hell is Regulating Who? … The NRC’s Abdication of Responsibility)
Shearon HARRIS’ Troubling Record Revealed
Progress Energy points to the NRC’s “performance” reports as proof that the Shearon Harris plant has a safe track record. But the NRC’s reports cover only recent “performance indicators,” – the most superficial risk categories – and assume that top risk factors simply do not exist. Harris has operated for years with known safety flaws and risk factors that could be corrected, dramatically lowering danger to workers and the public. Of Shearon Harris’s problems described below (six ranking worst in the nation) NRC’s annual report card ignores all except SCRAMS that occurred in 2005.
Reactor Protection Against Fire
Harris ranks last nationally in at least two leading fire safety categories. Industry-wide, fire is the leading risk factor for reactor meltdown – constituting up to 50% of total risk, calculated under the assumption that the plant is in compliance with federal regulations. NRC estimates that the “… typical nuclear power plants will have three or four significant fires over their operating lifetime.” 2
There are hundreds of miles of electric cable at Harris, which becomes more prone to electrical shorts as the cable jacketing ages and separates. The jacketing itself then becomes part of the fuel for an electrical fire.
Progress Energy has remained in violation of 10 CFR Part 50 regulations since 1992, when NRC declared a widely used fire barrier called Thermo-Lag to be “inoperable” after its manufacturer was found to have falsified testing data. Harris had installed up to 10,000 square feet of Thermo-Lag, designed to protect vital safety equipment from fire. A second fire barrier, called Hymec, which wraps 6,000 linear feet of electrical cable at Harris – the most at any U.S. plant – is also inoperable.
In place of the physical fire protections required by law, Shearon Harris relies on “compensatory” measures – roving fire patrols conducted by contract employees – that were intended only for very short-term use. It also relies on over 100 multi-stage written procedures – the most of any U.S. plant – that are unapproved and illegal. These “operator manual actions” direct technicians to run through the plant if control cables have burned away, and to manually operate valves and breakers needed to shut down the reactor. Progress Energy has lobbied NRC for years to reverse fire safety regulations instead of correcting the fire barrier problems.
A 2005 federal report became the seventh inspection since 2002 finding additional pumps,
valves and sections of electric wiring unprotected against fire at Harris. In October 2005 the company revised its projected date of regulatory compliance to 2010.3 Harris’ continuing problems led an NRC fire engineer to state at a September 29, 2005 meeting on this subject: “We are concerned your plant might not be safe.” 4
Shearon Harris suffered a major fire in 1989, caused by an electrical short, which burned for three hours and required response by 30 firefighters. The fire ran 100 feet down an electrical cable, causing a hydrogen leak and explosion, and damaged transformers and three floors of the turbine building.5
A 2005 NRC study ranked Harris highest nationally in the risk of meltdown from loss of offsite power supply coupled with failure of emergency diesel generators.6 This accounts for 40% of Harris’ overall reactor risk under NRC’s calculations. Various factors cause reactors to occasionally lose power from the electrical grid, including internal equipment malfunction, ice or wind storms, acts of malice, or grid failure.
Back-up diesel generators (EDG) needed to restore power and prevent the reactor from melting down are also subject to failure. “The NRC relies primarily on industry reported EDG performance and availability.”7 Station Blackout (SBO) was a Generic Issue from the 1970s and ignored by NRC until 1990, when SBO caused Georgia’s Vogle Plant to come within hours of a meltdown. In 2000, Progress’ Brunswick plant suffered SBO. Offsite power was lost for nine hours, and after first failing, the backup EDGs were restored within 20 minutes.
Despite many problems with diesels, the NRC now allows plants to leave one of their three EDGs off-line for maintenance for up to 14 days – up from a three-day limit in the 1980s. This lowers safety margins unnecessarily. Harris should modify its technical specifications to disallow such extended diesel outages, particularly during summer, when the chance of grid failure is highest due to severe weather and high power loads.
SCRAM – Cooling System Failures
Harris leads the nation in SCRAMS, or sudden reactor shutdowns caused by problems within the complex system that removes heat from the reactor core to the outdoors. Harris had at least nine between 2002 and 2005, four times the industry average.8 An additional cooling system failure in April 2003 led NRC to conclude that safety systems were restored only 29 minutes before core cooling water would have boiled, which would have created a highly degraded safety condition. Harris’ cooling system failures have had various causes relating to equipment malfunction or worker error. Critics and some workers believe the rising number of system failures at Progress plants relate to cost-cutting measures including fewer inspections, equipment replacement and other maintenance reductions.
The better managed plants aren't having these kinds of problems this often,” says David Lochbaum. Each time a reactor trips, safety margins are lowered, opening the possibility for technical or human errors that compound the problem, possibly leading to the core overheating.
Design Flaw in Backup Cooling
A 2003 Union of Concerned Scientists study, based on federal data, calculated a 34% probability of a reactor accident in the U.S. within three years due to a flaw at 68 U.S. nuclear plants including Harris.
The NRC realized years ago that during various Loss of Coolant Accidents, high pressure water could scour adjacent piping insulation and paint, with the debris then clogging the reactor sump needed to recirculate backup cooling water. NRC wrote of the problem in its 1978 Annual Report:
“The consequences of the resulting inability to cool the reactor core or the containment atmosphere could be melting of the core and/or breaking of the containment.”
Four incidents involving partially clogged sump strainers in the early 1990s preceded NRC’s 1994 Annual Report noting that new tests showed “… that the potential for strainer clogging may be more significant than was perceived at the time USI A-43 [Unresolved Safety Issue] was resolved.”
In June 2002, NRC cited Harris for Escalated Enforcement Action “…involving foreign material in the containment sump suction piping … that resulted in the (A) Residual Heat Removal pump being inoperable.” But NRC has not required Harris to correct the sump defect; although this design flaw has now been fixed at dozens of plants around the world and several in the U.S. (NRC instructed all U.S. plants to correct it by 2007 – a date likely to be postponed again.)
Nuclear Waste Storage Pools
The NRC’s performance report ignores the threat posed by highly radioactive “spent” fuel stored at Shearon Harris although even partial loss of cooling water could lead to a release of radiation far greater than the Chernobyl accident. A 2005 study by the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that cooling pools packed with nuclear waste at U.S. plants are desirable targets for terrorists and are vulnerable to several types of attack. Harris has the largest pools in the
U.S. and probably the largest stockpile of waste. The plant’s original design was altered in 2002 when Progress connected the cooling system for all four waste pools to the reactor cooling system, a configuration that could impair heat removal capacity under emergency conditions.
Nuclear waste is almost certainly a permanent risk at Shearon Harris. Safer storage of the radioactive “spent” fuel is feasible, low cost and should be required. This includes returning Harris’ pools to their original low-density storage configuration, and moving all waste over five years old into bunkered, dispersed dry storage on site in thick-walled steel or iron casks.
Security is Seriously Inadequate
Due to heavy lobbying by plant owners, the NRC presently requires defense against fewer than one-third the number of the 9/11 attackers and assumes they would be armed with light weapons. In response to airliners or small, explosive-laden planes, jet fighters would be called in from the closest Air Force base.
Late at night on January 30, two supposed hunters entered the plant’s cooling water canal in a boat, fired a gun, and were hailed by guards but escaped. Barriers and guards should be required to prevent anyone from coming that close to the cooling water intake of a nuclear power plant.
In March, the NRC confirmed Harris’ third set of serious security failures since the late 1990s.9 The range of problems included multiple entries into the plant by people failing back-ground checks; security equipment such as doors to Vital Areas remaining inoperable for years; and guards – along with a top corporate security official – fired for reporting problems.10 Several investigations are ongoing. Harris security guards say that saving money takes priority over security.
Shearon Harris nuclear waste pools are located in a building designed only to withstand high winds, as are other Vital Areas, including the control room and cooling water intake structure. Progress has contended that the pools are underground and that the building is constructed “to the same standards” as the reactor building. Neither assertion is true.11 Instead of lobbying for lowered security levels, Progress Energy should institute greater security than required by NRC.
Worst Near Miss Since 1979
In April NC WARN learned (thanks to Greenpeace’s Jim Riccio) that a 12-month inoperability of Harris’ back-up cooling system was kept from public view for 15 years. When Harris shut down for refueling in 1991, workers discovered what NRC investigators described as “seriously degraded” cooling equipment. NRC calculations found that the incident tied the 2002 discovery of a hole in the Davis-Besse reactor as the highest ranking near-miss in the U.S. since Three Mile Island. NRC said “The [Harris] flow rate of water required to neutralize the effects of ‘design basis’ accidents … would not have been attained.”
One of the most dangerous risks of U.S. nuclear power is the industry’s control over the agency charged with regulating it. However, the NRC alone is not to blame. Federal law requires nuclear plant owners to correct safety problems when they become aware of them. Most of the Harris risks summarized above can be greatly reduced if Progress Energy chooses, or is compelled, to do so.
NC WARN has repeatedly asked Progress Energy for open communication regarding these problems, instead of leaving critics to rely on NRC’s Byzantine information system, which is saturated by deceptive reporting and nukespeak. Progress has claimed they corrected some problems, but we later learned those claims were invalid. NC WARN will detail additional safety issues in later reports.
Progress Energy should fix these serious problems now instead of planning new reactors and waste pools at Shearon Harris.
1 Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Transcript, “Discussion of Proposed Rule on Backfitting,” page 29 lines 15-25, May 22, 1984.
2 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG-1150, Vol. 2
3 Harris Nuclear Plant Licensee Report 2002-004-09, October 28, 2005
4 http://www.ncwarn.org/media/NR-10-05-2005-FireTestFails.htm/. NRC confirmed to a reporter with the Raleigh News & Observer that the statement was made by an NRC engineer, but could not confirm it was the person identified in the release.
5 “NRC still assessing safety significance of major fire at Shearon-Harris,” Inside NRC, McGraw-Hill, October 23, 1989
6 “Station Blackout Risk Evaluation,” NRC 2005. See The News & Observer, “Report: Some risk at N-Plant,” May 27, 2005
7 ACRS Meeting Minutes/Summary of the AC/DC Power Systems Reliability Subcommittee, August 8, 1990, p. 4-5
9 “Shearon Harris problems verified,” The News & Observer, March 23, 2006
10 “Too many nuclear plants are not prepared to prevent attacks,” U.S. News and World Report, September 17, 2001 “Charles Manson could get access to a nuclear power plant,” says former [CP&L/Progress] nuclear security officer Richard Kester.” “Case Settled Over Security Breaches at Nuclear Plants: Blackballed Security Official Wins Against Progress Energy.” After losing a federal appeal, Progress Energy has settled a six-figure lawsuit by a former high-ranking official who was fired for refusing to lie to the NRC about a series of security breaches involving the company’s nuclear power plants.
11 HNP Technical specifications, obtained during 1999 Orange County intervention with ASLB over Harris spent fuel expansion. Neither the reactor containment nor the spent fuel building was designed against attack. The containment is intended to protect against some internal pressures, while