Federal watchdog faults nuke plant fire safety

While the U.S. nuclear industry is pushing plans to build seven new nuclear reactors -- all of them south of the Mason-Dixon line -- its regulators have failed to adequately enforce fire regulations at existing nuclear power plants.

That's the finding of a report released this week by the Government Accountability Office, which documented serious weaknesses in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight of fire safety at commercial reactors. The report was done at the request of U.S. Rep. David Price of North Carolina in response to local governments' concerns about fire protections at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris plant near Raleigh. The GAO concluded:

NRC has not resolved several long-standing issues that affect the nuclear industry's compliance with existing NRC fire regulations, and NRC lacks a comprehensive database on the status of compliance. These long-standing issues include (1) nuclear units' reliance on manual actions by unit workers to ensure fire safety (for example, a unit worker manually turns a valve to operate a water pump) rather than "passive" measures, such as fire barriers and automatic fire detection and suppression; (2) workers' use of "interim compensatory measures" (primarily fire watches) to ensure fire safety for extended periods of time, rather than making repairs; (3) uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of fire wraps used to protect electrical cables necessary for the safe shutdown of a nuclear unit; and (4) mitigating the impacts of short circuits that can cause simultaneous, or near-simultaneous, malfunctions of safety-related equipment (called "multiple spurious actuations") and hence complicate the safe shutdown of nuclear units. Compounding these issues is that NRC has no centralized database on the use of exemptions from regulations, manual actions, or compensatory measures used for long periods of time that would facilitate the study of compliance trends or help NRC's field inspectors in examining unit compliance.

The GAO report noted that the NRC has granted more than 900 waivers for fire safety rules. As we've reported previously, Southern nuclear power plants lead the nation in the use of problematic fire wraps to protect electrical cables.

The risk of fire has long been a major concern for nuclear safety advocates. The current fire safety rules were written in the wake of the 1975 fire at Alabama's Browns Ferry nuclear power plant, where workers using a candle to test seals for air leaks ignited a blaze that burned for seven hours. According to the GAO report, there have been 125 fires at 54 of the nation's 65 nuclear facilities since 1995.

In 2006, five citizen groups filed an emergency petition with the NRC asking the agency to either shut down the Harris plant until it comes into full, unqualified compliance with fire regulations or impose the maximum fine of $130,000 per violation for each day the plant operates out of such compliance. Behind the filing were the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network; the Union of Concerned Scientists; nuclear safety specialist Paul Gunter, now with Washington-based Beyond Nuclear; Students United for a Responsible Global Environment; and N.C. Fair Share, a social justice advocacy group active in communities near the plant. The NRC rejected that petition.

The GAO called on the NRC to obtain and monitor data on the status of compliance with its fire safety regulations and address long-standing fire safety issues concerning interim compensatory measures, fire wrap effectiveness, and those "multiple spurious actuations." In its response, the NRC said the report was accurate and complete, but it didn't address GAO's recommendations.