October 14, 2010
Jim Warren 919-416-5077
Paul Gunter 301-523-0201
“Smoking Gun” Shows U.S. Regulators Cutting Corners on Nuclear Fire Protections, say Watchdog Groups
Inspector General’s investigation continues on the #1 safety issue at nuclear plants; New reactor licenses hinge on fire program
DURHAM, NC – As an investigation continues into potential wrongdoing by regulators involving fire protection at the nation’s nuclear power plants, watchdog groups today said federal documents prove multiple corners are being cut with a controversial new regulatory scheme. After decades of non-enforcement of fire rules by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the groups say entire categories of fire protection are not yet understood even though the NRC is allowing scores of operating and proposed plants to adopt the new regulations.
Watchdog groups today released an internal NRC memo that lists 16 areas of fire protection work that are incomplete or poorly understood. Some categories will not be resolved for at least another year. Included are fundamental problems that have plagued NRC and industry efforts to resolve decades of fire noncompliance, such as the impact of smoke damage to electrical control circuits; the effectiveness of fire suppression agents, and; computer models that failed tests intended to help predict how fire impacts cables controlling the nuclear reactor.
But only days after that internal memo, the NRC granted a hotly contested license amendment to Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris plant in North Carolina. The amendment approved use of the new, “risk-based” fire regulations – known as NFPA 805 – following a two-year pilot project at Harris testing the program’s effectiveness. The amendment reflects the many gaps reflected in the June 14th NRC memo, the watchdogs say.
“The NRC has knowingly allowed nuclear plants to operate in violation of fire protection regulations for decades,” said David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for UCS, who found the NRC memo. “The NRC has a very long list of questions it hopes to answer over the next few years, which means the NRC is merely guessing that Shearon Harris is safe enough. That’s pitiful, just pitiful.”
“The NRC is acting just like its oil-soaked MMS counterpart – allowing corners to be cut at every juncture – to accommodate the industry’s needs,” said NC WARN director Jim Warren today. “After playing lapdog for 20 years, NRC is now allowing the industry’s dreams of new plants to drive the schedule regarding this top meltdown risk – even though it’s very possible they never will solve these fire science problems.”
The NRC estimates that fire represent 50% of the overall risk of meltdown at US plants. Recent fire emergencies include one at Progress’s Robinson plant that caused a shutdown of up to six weeks.
The latest investigation by the NRC’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) follows 2008 reports by the OIG and the Government Accountability Office, both of which confirmed the watchdogs’ charges of NRC negligence on the fire issue stretching back for two decades. The NRC itself has admitted that fire protection is one of the agency’s longest running embarrassments.
In a letter to Congressman David Price, NC WARN said NRC’s timing is apparently being pushed by the need for resolution of the decades-old regulatory failure; licenses to build new reactors – already seriously delayed by design and cost problems – could be further hampered if fire protection remains such a baffling problem. The NRC memo indicates the agency will spend at least another year re-testing fire models that failed earlier lab tests.
“NRC has waded to the shallow end of its ‘defense-in-depth’ policy on fire hazards,” said Paul Gunter with Takoma Park, MD-based Beyond Nuclear. “Lowering the bar so that reactors operators can comply with regulations does not raise the standard for public safety,” he continued. Gunter has led watch-dogging efforts on fire safety for two decades.
The watchdogs say Congress must ensure that NRC doesn’t keep tempting fate at the nation’s nuclear power plants.
NC WARN’s Jim Warren added: “With both deep-sea oil drilling and nuclear power, safety regulations serve a function. We can debate whether they’re strict enough, but until then the question is, are they being enforced? It’s clear that the NRC is now only pretending they’ve solved fire protection. But they’re trying to give this industry’s worst offender, Shearon Harris, the thumbs up so they can put this national scandal to rest.”