Contact: Jim Warren
July 22, 2008
Harris, Oconee and Most U.S. Nuclear Plants Plan to
Violate Fire Safety Rules for Many Years to Come
New regulatory scheme is fraught with delay, defiance of Congress and happy talk
Statement by Jim Warren, NC WARN Executive Director:
DURHAM, NC – A pair of meetings at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission last Thursday revealed a new public relations strategy for persuading Congress and the public that a 16-year regulatory failure has been solved. But the NRC plans to allow more than two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear power plants to remain in noncompliance with key safety regulations indefinitely instead of forcing expensive corrections. NC WARN detailed the latest problems in a letter to Rep. David Price yesterday, and urged him to demand immediate enforcement of existing fire regulations.*
Following a pair of highly critical reports by the Government Accountability Office (called for by Rep. Price) and the NRC’s own Inspector General (OIG), the NRC’s four commissioners were eager to hear from staff and industry about plans to bring scores of plants into compliance with regulations involving fire, the top risk factor for nuclear meltdown. Thursday’s meetings began with a “kick-off” for formal acceptance of a new “805” regulatory plan; the timing was surreal since Progress Energy and Duke Energy are less than halfway through what have become six-year-plus pilot efforts to transition their Harris and Oconee plants, respectively, to the 805 scheme.
The ceremony was replete with upbeat talking points and photo-driven handshakes between NRC and officials from Progress and Duke – whose plants have been leading fire safety lawbreakers for years. As Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear said later, the only thing lacking was a burnt offering.
Throughout the day’s two meetings, NRC staff and Commissioners, the utilities and their trade groups repeated the spin, expressing relief that 805 was set to bring “closure,” after many years, to the agency’s increasingly controversial failure to require compliance with fire regulations. But the hype collided squarely with efforts by the industry officials to serve notice that complying with the new; less expensive regulatory regime will take much longer than hoped for when the pilot programs began three years ago. Still, the positive talking points continued.
I had been invited to brief the Commissioners as a token “stakeholder.” Except for my participation, the GAO and OIG reports apparently would not have been mentioned. The new, “risk-informed” 805 regulatory scheme is voluntary, but plants choosing it would escape longstanding regulations requiring full-blown physical protections, such as fire barriers, for miles of electric cables necessary to safely shut down and cool each nuclear reactor.
The GAO report warned of major, overlapping complexities with the 805 regulations and “risk-informed” methodology. Additional complications discussed at the Thursday meetings point to a minimum 10 to 20 years needed for industry-wide compliance. Among the revelations:
- An NRC official confirmed that fire-related events represent approximately half the overall risk of meltdown at U.S. nuclear power plants.
- Unresolved challenges include a serious lack of personnel trained in the probability risk assessment techniques required by the 805 regulations.
- Risk assessment cannot account for deliberate fires including those involving thousands of gallons of jet fuel.
- Most plant owners don’t know where hundreds of vital cables are located within their plants.
- Even if 805 compliance is achieved, complex recalculations, inspections and reviews would be required each time new equipment is introduced at a plant.
- Up to 77 of the nation’s 104 reactors are under consideration for the transition to 805. The NRC plans to allow them to remain indefinitely in noncompliance with existing fire regulations – until they might someday gain compliance with 805.
- The NRC will continue NOT inspecting fire areas that are in noncompliance.
- NRC staff admits it has no authority to prevent Harris, Oconee or other plants from modifying compliance schedules as time goes on.
- Instead of resolving the contentious, years-long use of “interim” compensatory measures, Progress and Duke expect additional compensatory measures will be needed for 805 compliance.
- Duke Energy said complying with existing rules would require Duke to “gut and re-cable” the Oconee station. All the company’s nuclear plants are in violation of fire regulations.
The NRC-industry 805 scheme is tailor-made for years of additional obfuscation, exemptions from compliance, “compensatory measures” and a terribly inefficient use of NRC resources – taxpayer money. Plant owners have obviously calculated that this approach is cheaper than making the physical corrections called for by current rules.
The House Appropriations Committee recently signaled the NRC that it expects “full compliance” with fire protection regulations on an “expedited basis.” It will be interesting to see if Congress will finally rein in the industry-promoting NRC and nuclear plant lawbreakers.
NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko expressed frustration with the lack of progress, and suggested the need for enforcing the existing fire regulations until 805 transitions could be completed. In our letter, NC WARN urged Rep. Price, at a minimum, to support this position and require its immediate implementation.
However, after more than a decade of broken promises and misleading statements from Progress Energy, other licensees and the NRC, a better use of taxpayer resources and more timely and certain nuclear plant fire protection would be achieved if Congress requires the NRC to rescind the 805 program and immediately begin enforcing the existing fire safety regulations, including the assessment of daily financial penalties until plants are in full compliance. Why should the U.S. public expect any less?
July 21, 2008
Honorable David Price
U.S. House of Representatives
Subject: NRC would allow most U.S. nuclear plants to violate fire regulations for many years.
Dear Representative Price,
I write to caution you about a new public relations exercise by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and industry, which appears intended to make Congress and the public believe that the agency’s 16-year failure to enforce fire protection regulations has finally been solved. I attended a pair of meetings Thursday, July 17th at NRC headquarters where the new strategy was revealed.
Following last month’s highly critical reports by the Government Accountability Office – conducted thanks to your help – and January’s report by NRC’s inspector general (OIG), the NRC’s four Commissioners were eager for an update by staff and industry officials about plans to bring scores of plants into compliance with regulations involving fire, a key risk factor for nuclear meltdown. As you know, the NRC and industry have been banking on the voluntary “805” program, which was approved in 2005 as an alternate, risk-informed regulatory regime.
That transition now is poised to become a 10 to 20 year exercise in futility and public frustration. 805 increasingly appears to be another end run – a scheme to relax fire regulations instead of requiring nuclear plant owners to spend the money needed to correct known, serious safety deficiencies.
Thursday’s meetings began with a “kick-off” for 805, a ceremony replete with photo-driven handshakes between NRC, Progress Energy and Duke Energy, along with positive-spin talking points. Throughout the day’s two meetings, NRC staff and Commissioners, the utilities and their trade group officials all repeated talking points expressing relief that 805 was set to bring “closure” to the years of the increasingly controversial agency failure to require compliance with fire protection regulations. Plants choosing to transition to 805 would escape the expense of complying with longstanding regulations requiring fire barriers and other physical protections for miles of electric cables necessary to safely shut down and cool a nuclear reactor.
However, the positive spin collided with repeated efforts by industry officials to serve notice to the NRC that complying with the new, less expensive regulatory regime is proving far more difficult than expected. There are major, overlapping complexities indicating that achieving compliance will take much longer than had been hoped for, and maintaining compliance will, I believe, be a nightmare for NRC staff and for reactor communities concerned about nuclear plant safety. This concern is based on the pilot programs at Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris and Duke Energy’s Oconee stations, both of which have now been pursued for three years and are at least several years from completion.
Additional complications reported by the GAO have not yet been factored into the 805 plans. In fact, if I had not brought them up, the recent reports by the GAO and OIG apparently would not have even been mentioned during the two meetings. (I had been invited to make a presentation to the Commission, evidently as a token public “stakeholder.”) In response to my question at the end of the morning meeting, an NRC official stated that they intend to formally address GAO recommendations within 60 days of the report. I will not recount the many concerns with 805 transition that GAO identified, but additional problems discussed at the meetings include:
- An NRC official confirmed that fire-related events represent approximately half the overall risk of core damage at U.S. nuclear power plants.
- All industry officials and many from the NRC repeated that a key, unresolved challenge is a great lack of available personnel trained in probability risk assessment (PRA).
- In the words of one Duke official, 805 is “a very complicated process” that is difficult for plant workers to adopt. An NRC official admitted, “We are doing as much as possible to make this really complex issue doable.”
- Even if 805 compliance is achieved, it would be challenged each time new equipment is introduced at a plant, which would require complex recalculations, inspection and review of new PRA models.
- The NRC says 47 of the nation’s 104 operating units plan to transition to 805, and that 20 to 30 other units are considering the transition. Thus, the NRC plans to allow more than two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear plants to indefinitely remain in noncompliance with key safety regulations that were promulgated nearly 30 years ago.
- Progress Energy predicts compliance with 805 at Harris in late 2010 – a dubious prospect based on recent evidence. Duke Energy has not yet predicted a compliance date for Oconee. That places each pilot transition on a six-year-plus timeframe. Although later plants might be able to transition more quickly, the complications identified so far point instead to a minimum 10 to 20 years for industry-wide compliance.
- NRC staff admits it has no authority to prevent those two plants in the pilot transition plan (or later plants ) from modifying compliance schedules shown in the LARs. More delay.
- On the day preceding the two 805 meetings, NRC staff requested yet another extension of its Enforcement Discretion authority regarding fire noncompliances.
- Industry-wide, most plants do not know where the safe shutdown cables are located. As Duke Energy noted, this complication alone added thousands of man-hours to its 805 transition activities.
- Instead of resolving the contentious, long-term use of “interim” compensatory measures, plant owners expect additional comp measures will be needed as part of 805 compliance.
As the GAO noted, NRC staff had identified serious weaknesses with long-term reliance on comp measures such as fire patrols. Some plants have now used them for 20 years.
- The NRC will continue not to inspect fire areas that are in noncompliance, as noted in November 2006 by the head of NRC’s fire division.
- The agency is developing guidance documents for 805 on a parallel track to reviewing the LARs for Harris and Oconee. This introduces additional challenges for agency staff resources and scheduling.
- Instead of an external peer review of the Harris 805 transition as required by NRC rules, an official admitted Thursday that the agency itself performed the review.
I request that you investigate the previous point, and whether NRC improperly allowed Progress to submit a License Amendment Application (LAR) prior to completion of prescribed activities. Based on NRC’s March report on Harris’ pilot program, which identified major shortcomings and lack of work performed, it seems clear that the NRC allowed Progress to skip one or more substantial steps so that it could beat the deadline for submitting the LAR in order to mute public criticism and before Enforcement Discretion expired.
805 is clearly a weaker set of regulations – including real problems with inspectability. With NRC being unable to enforce existing, explicit regulations based on physical systems, shifting to the vague, non-descript criteria of the 805 option provides little hope for protection against severe nuclear accidents. Risks will only increase as miles of electrical cables age, and risk assessment cannot account for deliberate fires including those involving thousands of gallons of jet fuel.
The reason that scores of nuclear plants remain in noncompliance is simple: they have been unwilling to spend the millions of dollars needed to comply with current regulations. A Duke Energy official stated that if Oconee were required to meet existing regulations, the entire station would have to be gutted and re-cabled. However, there is no provision in fire regulations – or in the NRC’s mandate – for the economic benefit of licensees taking precedence over public safety.
As Paul Gunter and David Lochbaum predicted, the 805 option has not provided an alternative means of compliance, it has merely provided an alternative set of excuses for non-compliances.
The NRC-industry 805 scheme is tailor-made for years of additional obfuscation, exemptions from compliance, more reliance on “compensatory measures” and a terribly inefficient use of NRC resources and taxpayer money.
Following presentations to the Commission by the panel of four industry officials and myself, Commissioner Jaczko expressed frustration with the lack of progress, and suggested the need for enforcing the existing fire regulations until 805 transitions could be completed. Rep. Price, I urge you, at a minimum, to support this position and require its immediate implementation.
I appreciate the House Appropriations Committee language calling for “full compliance” on “expedited basis.” However, when I asked the Commissioners what that means to them, the reply was silence. I urge you to impose that language, and require that the Commissioners use their discretionary authority to enforce the existing fire safety regulations including the assessment of daily financial penalties until full compliance is achieved. Why should the public expect any less ?
After years of broken promises and misleading statements from Progress Energy, other licensees and the NRC, I believe a better use of taxpayer resources and more meaningful public protection would be achieved if you require the NRC to rescind the 805 program.
I posed to the Commission several questions, one regarding new plant applications: Fire protection is but one part of the many systems and functions in a nuclear plant. How can Progress, Duke and the NRC skip so rapidly through the fire protection and all other topics for a new plant application
in considerably less time than it takes Progress and NRC to resolve known fire protection problems at an operating plant? The question was met by silence.
Finally, after seeing up close the agency and industry interactions, I am more concerned than ever about the pervasive industry influence over key agency officials including commissioners. There has long been an obvious pro-industry bias among NRC officials, which has recently included blatant promotion of new plants and the misleading statements regarding safety regulations; this from officials who are supposed to regulate the nuclear industry. The pro-industry attitude at NRC is palpable, a problem which bodes poorly for our nation’s safety, economy and energy policy.
I encourage you and your colleagues to increase the pressure on the NRC to fulfill its mandate on behalf of the public. Thank you for your efforts in this important matter.
cc: NRC Chairman Dale Klein