NRC says “Our concern is that your plant might not be safe”
DURHAM, NC – A second round of tests has confirmed that a key safety system at the Harris nuclear plant is not protective against reactor core damage, according to results discussed at a federal meeting last week. A faulty fire barrier called Hemyc is the third aspect of fire protection in which Harris ranks among the nation’s most vulnerable. Fire represents the leading threat of reactor meltdown industry-wide, constituting 50% of overall risk according to federal reports.
The News & Observer on August 25th reported Progress Energy’s assertion that tests contracted that month by several utilities showed the fire barrier “works as intended.” But engineers for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission insisted Thursday that results of the industry tests were consistent with those performed in April for the NRC that showed clear failure, a point conceded by Progress and others at the meeting. Both analyses were conducted by Sandia National Laboratory.
“Our concern is that both sets of tests show failure. Our concern is that your plant might not be safe,” Roy Woods, an engineer with the NRC, told Harris plant officials at the meeting. Representatives from Progress Energy’s Harris and from Duke Power’s Catawba were the meeting’s most vocal plant owners; both Harris and Catawba contain large amounts of the faulty Hemyc material that would have to be replaced to comply with federal regulations. The barriers are designed to slow the spread of a fire that could disable pumps, valves and cables needed by operators to safely shut down the reactor.
At one point during the meeting, Mike Fletcher of Harris said the utilities planned to perform more testing, to which NRC’s Chandu Patal replied, “No more testing is needed; both sets of tests were good.” NRC’s Woods joined the argument against more testing, producing a set of test slides. He then, step-by-step, described how both sets of tests showed similar failures of the fire retardant material.
Harris’ Fletcher and others then conceded that the two sets of tests were consistent, and Fletcher stated, regarding a particular test involving electrical conduit, “they all failed thermally around the radial bend.”
Progress then shifted to questioning the NRC’s proposed two-year timetable requiring replacement of the Hemyc, with Fletcher pointing out that Harris has “the most in the industry.” An NRC spokesman concurred, saying the plant has “a lot of unique applications” of the material, and “will have to be very creative” to fix the problems.
“This is another serious safety problem at Shearon Harris that Progress Energy should correct now – not delay for years as with other fire violations and design flaws,” said NC WARN Director Jim Warren, who participated in the meeting. “Many NRC technical staff are trying to protect the public but are apparently overmatched by political pressure from above, as NRC commissioners continue allowing Harris and other plants to operate with these known risks.
Warren referred to a similar issue with another type of ineffective fire barrier, called Thermo-Lag; Harris and other plants have, for over a decade, resisted NRC staff efforts to force its replacement.
In still another fire category, federal documents show that Shearon Harris relies on the highest number of “manual operator actions” in the industry; complex procedures are set forth that would send personnel into the plant to operate circuits and valves manually in case fire disables the ability of control room operators to shut down the reactor.
Instead of requiring compliance with fire protection requirements – operative fire barriers – put into effect after an Alabama plant was largely destroyed in 1975, the NRC has for several years allowed plant owners to rely on intermittent human fire patrols as “temporary” fixes. Now the industry is aggressively seeking to roll back the fire regulations, thus allowing plants to operate with the patrols – as “compensatory measures” – indefinitely instead of replacing failed fire barrier materials.
Last week NRC staff announced they are recommending against such rules changes, but NRC Commissioners are expected to grant industry’s wish by overruling its technical experts on the matter.
“Shearon Harris has the distinction of ranking number one in these fire violation categories, and number one in the risk of meltdown due to station blackout,” added watchdog Jim Warren. “It has a known but uncorrected flaw in its emergency cooling system, has suffered eleven reactor trips since 2003, and has one of nation’s largest stockpiles of highly radioactive waste.”
“The NRC needs to force Progress Energy to comply with the law and reduce its risks before these problems become reclassified as emergencies,” said Warren.