April 28, 2008
Contact: Jim Warren, NC WARN 919-416-5077
David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists 202-223-6133
Paul Gunter, Beyond Nuclear 301-270-2209
New Fire Program at Nuclear Plant is in Shambles
Watchdogs say NRC misled Congressman, demand feds suspend Harris license
DURHAM, NC – A controversial fire protection pilot program intended to remedy 16 years of broken promises over safety at the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant has itself collapsed into indefinite delay. Three watchdog groups today sent a federal report to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Gregory Jaczko indicating Progress Energy is still years away from compliance with critical safety regulations. They insisted that the five-member Commission use its discretionary authority to suspend Harris’ license, drop the pilot program, and order the plant into compliance with existing fire regulations for the protection of vital safe shutdown systems.
Also, the groups told U.S. Rep. David Price in a separate letter that NRC Chairman Dale Klein repeatedly misled the congressman earlier this month when responding to Price’s concerns about lax fire enforcement by the agency. Congressional frustration with NRC has grown markedly in recent months.
Fire is a leading risk factor for core meltdown at nuclear plants because it can disable control cables for 20-plus systems needed to shut down and cool the reactor core. Today, Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists and Beyond Nuclear, along with NC WARN of Durham, told Jaczko they believe his agency’s fire protection engineers have been bullied by the industry for too long, and that those professionals need the Commissioners’ support to enforce compliance at plants where fire barriers have been found to offer less than the required level of cable protection.
“Among all the federal agencies gutted by political pressure to protect big corporations, the NRC is probably the worst,” said Jim Warren of NC WARN today. “The FAA was forced to finally order airlines to fix wiring problems that could bring down a plane, but the NRC has for 16 years let Shearon Harris dodge similar corrections that could devastate several states with radioactive fallout.”
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Progress Energy repeatedly promised NRC it would soon replace inoperable fire barriers called Thermo-lag and Hemyc. But meanwhile, the Raleigh-based utility and others vigorously lobbied for NRC to relax the rules instead of forcing multi-million dollar corrections. When NRC fire engineers balked, Progress volunteered to adopt a new regulatory program based on complex risk studies on the likelihood of fires.
Under growing pressure from public interest groups – as well as local and state officials – calling for financial penalties or license suspension until the violations are fixed, Harris promised last year to apply for a license amendment this June, thus finally establishing a formal timetable for “upgrading” the plant’s fire protection. But a 116-page NRC staff report sent last month to Harris officials is replete with evidence that the transitional fire protection program is once again badly behind schedule. Among the pages of criticism, the agency wrote: “Very little detailed fire modeling has been done … major changes to the modeling and resulting risk estimates are to be expected.”
“NRC has too long turned a blind eye on violations that in the event of fire mean the difference between safely shutting Harris down and a meltdown,” said Paul Gunter with Takoma Park, MD-based Beyond Nuclear. “NRC could become the Phoenix arising out of the shambles of its fire protection program by enforcement of the standing law,” said Gunter.
Commissioner Jaczko met twice with the watchdog groups in 2007, agreeing that years of noncompliance must end but urging patience with the new regulatory program. In today’s letter to Jaczko, NC WARN attorney John Runkle called the pilot program a trap where “NRC allows the nuclear plant operators another free ride because they are ‘studying’ the fire problem, rather than fixing it.”
Shearon Harris, located near Raleigh, uses more of the failed fire barrier – over 1.5 miles – than any other plant. Harris has suffered several past fires, including an electrical system blaze that destroyed much of the turbine building. The critics predicted in 2006 that shifting to the new, risk-based regulations would be used as an excuse for even more delay. Moreover, they warned that the new regulations based on “risk assessment” disregard the potential for fires caused by acts of malice. Numerous federal studies confirm that nuclear plants could be devastated by a variety of attack scenarios.
Last year, Rep. Price of North Carolina launched a Government Accountability Office investigation into the NRC’s oversight of fire protection, with a report expected by summer. On a separate track Rep. John Dingell plans to conduct hearings over various complaints against NRC, including the fire issue.
In January, the NRC’s Inspector General issued a report highly critical of the NRC, noting the agency has known since 1994 that the Hemyc barrier fails fire tests in minutes – less than half the duration required by NRC regulations. Of the 16 plants the IG found to be in violation, six are owned by NC-based Progress Energy and Duke Energy. To compensate for the years of noncompliance – the NRC is allowing the plants to rely on “interim” measures that have been neither tested nor approved by the agency.
The watchdogs told Rep. Price that NRC Chairman Klein’s letter to him seems deliberately worded to mislead the Congressman on key fire issues, and they believe Klein’s fellow commissioners and public affairs office warned him against sending the letter. Klein has been cited several times since 2006 for issuing deceptive statements regarding fire protections and nuclear plant defenses, and for promoting the industry he is charged with regulating.
“We look forward to the GAO report on fire protection that Rep. Price requested” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The NRC seems unable to make progress resolving fire protection problems by itself. Continued Congressional oversight attention can only hasten the day when millions of Americans are no longer at undue risk.”
Lochbaum and the others say it is obvious that Progress Energy still hasn’t made fire safety a priority since it hasn’t devoted the resources needed to keep its latest promises. They said it is time for NRC to force the company to make physical changes required under standing fire safety regulations.
Commissioner Gregory B. Jaczko
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Mail Stop O‑16G4
Washington, D.C. 20555-0001
Subject: Enforcement of fire protection regulations at Shearon Harris
I am replying to your letter of April 16, 2008 on behalf of the NC Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Beyond Nuclear. Although the representatives from those groups appreciated the opportunity to discuss with you the need for enforcing fire regulations at the nuclear plants, it is clear to us that little or nothing is being accomplished.
In the six months between the time we met with you in Raleigh and today, there has been no advance in the Harris pilot project for transition to the NFPA 805 standard. The NRC staff issued “Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, Unit 1 – Preliminary Results of the NRC Staff Review of the Fire Probabilistic Risk Assessment Model to Support Implementation of National Fire Protection Association Standards NFPA-805, Performance-Based Standard for the Protection for Light Water Reactor Electric Generating Plants” (the “PRA review”) on March 10, 2008. The PRA review was a technical assessment of Progress Energy’s study to transition to NFPA 805. The cover letter concludes
that the Harris fire PRA is not complete, some tasks have yet to be started, and many areas are still in draft form. At the time of the onsite portion of the review, the Harris fire PRA was more similar to a scoping analysis, rather than a completed fire PRA.
Your confidence in NFPA 805 is misguided, as is demonstrated by this review. There are no timelines for completion of the study and it appears that this is just another scheme by Harris and other plants to delay coming into compliance with basic requirements for fire protection. Progress Energy committed to completing the NFPA 805 review at the Harris Plant and apply for a license amendment by June 2008. Of course this will not happen, nor will the Harris Plant come into compliance with fire safety regulations any time in the conceivable future. This is the “NFPA 805 trap,” in that the NRC allows the nuclear plant operators another free ride because they are “studying” the fire problem, rather than fixing it.
In the “General Findings and Results” on page 3 of the PRA review, the NRC staff makes a series of findings that prove conclusively how flawed the 805 review has been at the Harris Plant. The findings are:
• Use of non‑rated barriers for fire compartments
• Containment bypass not considered in selection of equipment
• Incorrect instruments identified in some cases
• Power supply cables not cascaded into fire PRA model
• Coordination studies not tied well to configuration management
• Excessive modeling conservatisms leading to unrealistic results
• Zone of Influence not applied for wall and corner transient fire sources
• Only target considered was cables
• Fire response operator actions not modeled (neither beneficial nor adverse effects)
• Errors of commission based on instrument availability not modeled
• Quantification method does not identify individual sequences to support identification of significant accident sequences
• Inability to determine significant components
• Guidance for configuration control references out‑of‑date material
• Documentation not complete in a number of areas
• Several areas not performed; e.g., LERF analysis, uncertainty analysis, seismic‑fire interaction, assessment of potential fire effect on exposed structural steel
What is more important, the findings, such as the “use of non-rated barriers for fire compartments” and “containment bypass not considered in selection of equipment,” prove that Harris Plant has been and continues to be in violation of even the most basic fire protection measures.
When the 805 option was being considered, Paul Gunter and Dave Lochbaum appeared before the ACRS’s fire protection subcommittee to strongly caution against it. They pointed out that the driver for the need for an option was pervasive non-compliance with existing fire protection regulations adopted by the NRC in 1980 after the Browns Ferry fire. The existing regulations were black and white (e.g., feet of separation, explicit fire barrier durations, etc.) while the 805 option was largely gray (e.g., feasibility of manual actions). The chronic inability to conform with explicit criteria is an unsound basis for shifting to the vague, non-descript criteria of the 805 option. As Paul and Dave predicted, the 805 option has not provided an alternative means of compliance, it has merely provided an alternative set of excuses for non-compliances.
Rather than allow the interminable delays for compliance with fire safety to continue, we are demanding that the Commission use all of its discretionary authority to enforce the fire safety regulations. As called for in our original petition, this requires that you immediately 1) suspend Harris’ operating license, 2) assess daily financial penalties, and 3) order the plant into compliance with existing fire regulations for the physical protection of vital safe shutdown systems. We also urge you to drop the 805 pilot program for the reasons explained above.
We believe NRC has earnest fire protection professionals who would welcome the opportunity to do their jobs by enforcing these vitally important regulations, and who are tired of being bullied by the industry. We call on you to support those professionals by withstanding the industry’s political pressure, and by taking decisive action as called for above.
The NRC’s seemingly permanent “enforcement discretion” in this area cannot continue. You need to make certain that U.S. nuclear power plants are safe now, not in some ill-defined time in the future.
John D. Runkle
cc Rep. David Price
The Honorable David E. Price
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
|SUBJECT:||NRC CHAIRMAN KLEIN’S MISLEADING FIRE PROTECTION RESPONSE|
Dear Congressman Price:
After many years of frustration about fire protection problems at nuclear power plants, we entertained high hopes earlier this year. The Government Accountability Office review of fire protection enforcement you requested last year would help ascertain what was right and what was not; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Inspector General (IG) released a report in January on the agency’s oversight of Hemyc fire barriers; and the NRC’s public statements about the IG report – embodied in its January 25, 2008, press release – strongly suggested that the status quo of deceit and denial was ending. We expected the NRC to heed the guidance you provided Chairman Klein in your February 15th letter about “Public confidence can only be restored by comprehensive NRC efforts to fully resolve questions about fire protection” and the NRC sparing “no effort to demonstrate to the public, including public stakeholder groups, that it is being responsive and that its actions are fully transparent.”
Chairman Klein’s response of April 7th was a tremendous letdown because it was non-responsive and misleading. In the second paragraph of his response, the NRC Chairman stated:
While the Hemyc issue was not resolved immediately after the 1993 study, the NRC took appropriate actions commensurate with the significance of the safety concern represented by the reduce Hemyc fire barrier resistance. Operating reactors with Hemyc fire barriers have been safe throughout this period and remain safe today. … Today, the Hemyc issue has been completely resolved at 5 of the 16 affected units, and compensatory measures remain in place at the other 11 affected units, pending final resolution.
The implication is that compensatory measures have been in place since the NRC first identified shortfalls in the Hemyc fire barrier with its 1993 testing. His response seems deliberately worded to cause you to mistakenly believe that compensatory measures were instituted in 1993. But the reality is that no compensatory measures were taken at any site for Hemyc’s shortcomings until after the second Hemyc test failure in 2005. Chairman Klein’s response credits the compensatory measures applied after the 2005 failure, but he is silent about the total lack of any such measures between 1993 and 2005. That silence is curious, because it is directly relevant to the first point of yours he cites in paragraph one: “the NRC has not provided adequate oversight of important fire protection requirements for more than a decade.”
In the third paragraph of his response, Chairman Klein credits the fire protection inspections conducted within the NRC’s reactor oversight process. This credit is particularly galling to us because we specifically questioned the efficacy of such inspections during our November 13, 2006 meeting with the NRC staff regarding fire protection at Shearon Harris. That meeting was transcribed by the NRC. One of us explicitly asked the NRC:
We are not sure how NRC inspectors are doing fire protection inspection at Harris. What criteria are they evaluating against? transcript, page 33, lines 31-33
Sunil Weerrakkody of the NRC staff answered the question this way:
For Shearon Harris and all other plants that are transitioning to 805, we have a revised inspection procedure. And at a high level what I can say is, we have told inspectors to focus on the fire protection infrastructure, like for example when inspectors go, you have the fire brigade, you have the suppression system, and if the plant is transitioning to 805, in areas where we have basically said, our position is that they are not in compliance, we enable them to transition. In other words, there is no reason to go and reinspect things like operator manual actions where we believe that the license is not in compliance. transcript, page 49, lines 6-18 [emphasis added]
In other words, NRC’s fire protection inspectors are instructed by their management NOT to look into areas known to be in violation of fire protection regulations. We hope you can agree that little confidence can be placed in a regulator who, after intentionally turning a blind eye towards compliance during fire protection inspections, seeks to take credit for the useless inspections. What Chairman Klein characterizes as oversight is in reality overlook.
Chairman Klein ends the fourth paragraph of his response by stating the NRC completed full-scale testing of Hemyc fire barriers in 2005. Absent from the Chairman’s response is the enormously relevant fact that the Hemyc fire barrier failed the test. According to NRC’s Information Notice 2005-07:
The significance of the test results is that the Hemyc ERFBS [electrical raceway fire barrier system] did not perform for one hour as designed. … Consequently, the Hemyc ERFBS does not provide the level of protection expected for a rated 1-hour fire barrier.
The Chairman was not forthcoming with you regarding the significance of the 2005 test results.
Even if the NRC had not conducted a failed test of the Hemyc fire barrier in 1993, it’s response to the failed Hemyc fire barrier test in March 2005 was non-timely and unacceptable. The NRC issued Information Notice 2005-07 to plant owners on April 1, 2005, informing them of the Hemyc fire barrier test failure. It then took the NRC more than a year (until April 10, 2006 to be precise) to require plant owners to take any actions regarding the Hemyc fire barriers. There’s no excuse for this delay.
To be fair, this year-plus delay was more expedient than the NRC’s response to its determination that non-NRC qualification of Hemyc fire barriers was insufficient. In paragraph four, Chairman Klein observed:
In 1999, NRC inspectors identified concerns with the manufacturer’s fire qualification tests for the Hemyc fire barriers at the Shearon Harris plant and subsequently initiated full-scale fire testing of Hemyc.
The March 2005 fire testing of Hemyc was, in fact, “subsequent” to the 1999 discovery. But missing from the Chairman’s discussion is any mention of and explanation for the reasons for the five-plus year delay between discovery and testing. The IG’s January 2008 inquiry report, page 9, documented that inadequate funding caused at least two years worth of delay.
Clearly, the NRC Chairman’s misleading response to your letter falls short of fully resolving questions about fire protection and does not meet any reasonable “transparency” threshold. Thus, it reduces rather than restores public confidence in this agency’s ability to protect Americans from nuclear plant fire risk.
We understand that the NRC’s Office of Congressional Affairs staff reviewed the draft response and recommended that it not be sent to you because it was non-responsive to your concerns. We respectfully request that you consider two follow-up steps:
- Request that the NRC supply you with all prior drafts of the Chairman’s response along with the internal comments, including those by Chairman Klein’s fellow Commissioners, on the letter. This material will enable you to compare what the NRC staff knew and to identify the material removed from the response letter before it was sent to you.
- Request that the NRC’s Inspector General conduct an inquiry into how the response letter was drafted, reviewed, and approved. The IG has examined past misleading responses and revisiting this misleading response will help determine why the remedies promised by the NRC failed to prevent this recurrence.
We look forward to the GAO report on fire protection that you requested. The NRC seems unable to make progress resolving fire protection problems by itself and continued Congressional oversight attention can only hasten the day when million of Americans are no longer at undue risk.
NC WARN: Waste Awareness & Reduction Network
Director, Reactor Oversight Program
Director, Nuclear Safety Project
Union of Concerned Scientists