Update 9/09 : Congressman David Price is to be commended for initiating this investigation, but please urge him to follow through — and force the NRC to stop protecting nuclear lawbreakers: Dave.Russell@mail.house.gov, or 919-967-7924
NC WARN: Waste Awareness & Reduction Network
NEWS RELEASE Contact: Pete MacDowell
July 1, 2008 919-259-3140
Fed Watchdog Cites Lax N-Plant Safety Enforcement
GAO says corrections are needed for long-standing risk at Harris, other plants
DURHAM, NC – Safety at Shearon Harris and other nuclear plants has been adversely affected by 15 years of non-enforcement of fire regulations; the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has allowed long-term use of untested stopgap measures; and safety inspections are hampered by the lack of a system to track the extent of this key risk factor for nuclear meltdown. That’s according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which said it is “especially critical” to resolve the effectiveness of fire wraps “that were found lacking in effectiveness in various tests.”
Congress’ investigative agency also said the NRC has defied its own requirements by allowing nuclear plants to design protections against individual electrical shorts caused by fire, which could knock out operators’ control over the reactors, despite industry experience showing multiple problems can occur simultaneously.
The GAO also raised questions about plans for Harris and other plants to transition to a new regulatory scheme based on complex risk calculations over the potential for fires. Critics say it’s an excuse for more delay, with NRC admitting it has no plans to force compliance for years to come. Even worse, they say, such “risk assessment” disregards the potential for fires caused by acts of malice, although federal studies confirm that nuclear plants could be devastated by a variety of attack scenarios.
“Ongoing floods in the Midwest reveal the weakness of ‘probability risk assessment,” said NC WARN director Jim Warren today. “Several 100 and 500 year floods within 15 years were deemed impossible. And now the NRC is playing a fool’s game by allowing nuclear plant owners to skirt key safety regulations indefinitely based on the claims of low probability and the promise of untested makeshift measures.”
The GAO investigation resulted from charges filed in 2006 by NC WARN, Union of Concerned Scientists and Paul Gunter, now with Washington-based Beyond Nuclear. Local governments near Shearon Harris convinced Rep. David Price to seek the GAO study. The issue is now in the hands of Price and other congressional representatives, some of whom had already called for hearings.
The new study cites continuing discrepancies between NRC statements and action, and refers to a report released in January by the NRC’s Inspector General, which criticized the NRC for allowing the fire safety problems to linger since at least 1994. Other key findings include:
- Although 13 out of 125 fires between 1995 and 2007 were classified as significant alerts, and some damaged or destroyed equipment, NRC officials said none of the fires “degraded units’ safe shutdown capabilities or resulted in damage to nuclear units’ core or containment buildings.” Most fires were caused by electrical cables or equipment.
- “Unless NRC deals effectively with these issues, units will likely continue to postpone making necessary repairs and replacements, choosing instead to rely on unapproved or undocumented manual actions as well as compensatory measures that, in some cases, continue for years.”
- “According to NRC, nuclear fire safety can be considered to be degraded when reliance on passive measures is supplanted by manual actions or compensatory measures.” Yet plant owners have been allowed to rely on those stopgap measures for more than a decade.
- “By taking prompt action to address the unapproved use of operator manual actions, long-term use of interim compensatory measures, the effectiveness of fire wraps, and multiple spurious actuations, NRC would provide greater assurance to the public that nuclear units are operated in a way that promotes fire safety.”
See the GAO report: http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-747