FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Group Says Owner Dodging Corrections; Urges Legislators Touring Shearon Harris to Look Beyond New Paint, Guards & Guns
DURHAM, NC – A federal report shows scores of additional pumps, valves and electrical cables unprotected against fire at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant – the seventh inspection since 2002 finding the plant in violation of federal regulations. The news comes on top of recent reports showing the Wake County power plant ranks worst nationally in two other fire protection categories, as well as in the risk of a reactor accident due to loss of offsite power.
Environmental group NC WARN said the report shows that Progress Energy continues a years-long pattern of delaying corrective measures needed to protect the reactor’s cooling system from fire. The group charged that instead of protecting the reactor, Progress is one of several utilities pushing to abolish federal rules put in place after an Alabama plant was largely destroyed in 1975.
A number of state legislators are planning to tour the Harris plant late today, apparently as part of an effort by Progress Energy to gain support for a new reactor at the site – along with state subsidies. In April, the company announced its interest in a new reactor, part of a national push to revive the flagging nuclear industry. NC WARN today urged state officials not to be wooed by appearances at the plant.
“Shearon now ranks worst nationally in 2 of 3 key fire compliance categories … and probably the third as well,” said NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren today. “Progress Energy should fix these high-risk problems instead of punting them down the road year after year while pressing the NRC to gut the regulations altogether.”
Fires at nuclear plants constitute 50% of the industry-wide risk of reactor meltdown, according to studies by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The Licensee Event Report revealed today indicates Harris’ violations – involving combustible and missing fire barriers – won’t be corrected for at least two years; similar violations have lingered since the mid-1990s. The report to the NRC indicates at least 14 separate areas with unprotected safety equipment. Many of these involve the primary loop that circulates cooling water through the reactor. It was the seventh consecutive inspection since 2002 in which workers found additional unprotected equipment.
Last month, it was learned that Harris ranks first nationally in a separate critical facet of fire protection: reliance on another faulty fire barrier that wraps electric cables. Tests from Sandia Laboratory show that the product, called Hemyc, fails within minutes, while Harris uses it as a three-hour fire barrier. Progress told The News & Observer it intends to test the material itself in August because Harris’ barrier uses a different coating than the one tested by Sandia. The NRC said the materials are identical.
“Progress will never test that material,” predicted Warren. “They’re trying to run out the clock by changing the federal rules.” A Progress spokesman called the failing fire barrier “a long term” safety concern. But Warren points out that the miles of electric cables at Harris are already 20 to 30 years old, and an electrical short could start a fire that disables key safety equipment.
In place of the physical fire protections required by law, Shearon Harris relies on human fire patrols. It also illegally relies on over 100 complex written procedures – the most of any U.S. plant – that instruct 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. The NRC has allowed some plants to remain in such violation for years, and now appears poised to succumb to industry pressure to retroactively legalize all the noncompliant conditions. Warren said Progress has more to gain by the rules changes than any other utility, but the region is being placed under greater risk.
One local resident wrote to legislators urging skepticism about touring the Harris plant because the multiple safety problems won’t be visibly obvious. “Judging the safety of the Harris plant by just looking at it is like walking around Enron’s headquarters and then saying it must be a well-run company,” said Liz Cullington of Pittsboro. “This is especially true when that visit is pre-arranged, and the janitorial staff has gone through and the security staff is cued to look observant.”
In the face of an intense public relations offensive pushing for new taxpayer-funded reactors, the industry continues to mute news coverage of numerous reactor emergencies and other safety failures. Warren added that, “most news items skate past safety as a problem of the past. But Harris’ growing list of troubles is central to the question of building a new reactor – and to the current safety of the regional public.”