By Molly Davis
Activists are calling for a halt to nuclear energy expansions until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) finishes evaluating whether a fire safety strategy adopted this year by a North Carolina plant is effective.
Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant near New Hill in Wake County was the first in the U.S. to receive NRC approval to implement the agency’s new fire standards, issued in 2004 as a voluntary option for safety compliance.
The option allows a plant to focus its fire prevention and suppression efforts on areas of higher risk rather than meeting a blanket safety standard in every area of the plant. The change may involve spending more in higher risk areas, but it reduces the utility’s overall fire safety expense, said Progress Energy spokesman Mike Hughes.
Industry leaders are confident that the optional, new standards will prevent the outbreak of a fire, a major source of meltdown risk.
But nuclear watchdog groups say the adequacy of the new standards will not be known until the NRC’s Office of Inspector General completes a review of how they were approved.
“Until you did the research and understood those questions, you really didn’t know whether what was being done at Harris was good or bad,” said David Lochbaum, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ nuclear safety director. “And, to be fair to Progress Energy, they wouldn’t know either.”
Hughes said Progress Energy is confident about its new fire prevention program. The company plans to finish phasing it in by the end of November.
“The risk-informed fire-protection standard is an important part of putting the emphasis on areas of the plant where fire risk is greatest, rather than attempting to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to fire protection,” wrote Hughes in an e-mail. “It ensures public safety and does so in a reasonable way.”
The NRC’s Office of Inspector General did not respond to requests for confirmation of the fire safety investigation.
Fire safety has long been a concern for the NRC. After a fire in 1975 at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Alabama, the NRC set standards for the survival of the systems needed to safely shut down the reactor in the case of a fire.
Fire concerns were revived recently in a memo from NRC fire safety chief Alexander Klein. The memo, dated June 14, outlines 19 safety concerns related to NRC fire safety standards. Of those, only three have completed review.
Among the remaining issues, Klein identifies a need to update the risk assessment for fire under the new standards, estimating the agency will complete the update in December. Other concerns cited by Klein will not be resolved until late 2011.
Lochbaum notes that the memo was drafted during the same month that NRC approved the implementation of the flexible fire safety standards at the Harris plant.
“They seem to have put the cart before the horse,” said Lochbaum. “And that’s what the NRC’s inspector general is looking into: Did the NRC have sufficient knowledge to truly evaluate what Harris had done, or will that knowledge only be acquired once all these research projects are completed?”
At the Harris plant, Progress Energy is currently applying for a combined construction and operating license for two additional reactors. The single-unit plant currently generates power for more than 550,000 homes, and the company plans to decide whether to build the new reactors after an NRC licensing announcement, expected as early as 2012.
This application comes as President Obama has reiterated his interest in expanding nuclear energy as a way to head off climate change.
But NC Waste Awareness & Reduction Network, a group that opposes new nuclear plants, says an industry-touted “nuclear renaissance” must wait until NRC determines whether existing plants are complying with safety requirements.
“The NRC cannot confirm, according to its chairman, that any nuclear plants in the country are now in compliance with fire protection regulations,” said Jim Warren, the group’s executive director.
The Nuclear Energy Institute notes that the industry has a 30-year record without a fire significantly challenging a plant.