WASHINGTON, DC: The cover story for the August issue of The Progressive magazine, " Fire Hazard: Bush Leaves Nuclear Plants At Risk," focuses on the lack of federal oversight and enforcement on fire protection violations at nuclear reactors. Many critics believe a proposed federal policy to bring current regulations into compliance with current industry-wide violations of those regulations for the protection of reactor shutdown systems in the event of fire or attack would significantly reduce safety margins at commercial atomic reactors.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is lowering the fire protection bar at nuclear power plants to bring its regulations into compliance with widespread nuclear industry violations," said Paul Gunter, Director, Reactor Watchdog Project, for the Washington, DC-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "The federal retreat from fire code enforcement simultaneously raises the risk to public health, safety and security around the nation's nuclear power stations," he stated.
At issue is an effort by NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute to circumvent enforcement of federal fire code (1) that mandates the protection of electrical cabling so that no single fire can knock out both the primary and backup reactor safe shutdown equipment. Industry-wide violations, dating back as far as 1992 when NRC declared a widely deployed fire barrier system "inoperable," (2) have largely been forgiven and forgotten by both industry and NRC. Instead of requiring nuclear utilities to upgrade and maintain physical fire protection features at atomic reactors, NRC and NEI are seeking to abandon the requirement by substituting "operator manual actions" that would allow operators to sacrifice unprotected remote control systems to a fire and instead dispatch station personnel throughout the reactor facility to manually turn valves, pull circuit breakers, or flip switches to shutdown the reactor. Many reactor operators, in lieu of complying with federal fire code, have quietly adopted complex manual action strategies that were later revealed to be unapproved by NRC, unanalyzed for reactor and worker safety, and illegal under federal law. Under pressure from an industry-wide strategy to flood NRC with fire code exemption requests should the agency proceed with enforcement action, NRC is now seeking to change the law on mandatory physical protection of control room operated reactor safe shutdown systems by introducing an option to adopt interim criteria for "feasible" operator manual actions. NRC plans to codify operator manual actions in a later rulemaking.
"NRC is abandoning front line fire protection features at nuclear power stations and falling back to what should be considered desperate last ditch efforts, just to provide industry with a less costly compliance strategy," said Gunter. "There is no assurance that workers sent into the reactor to manually operate safety equipment won't encounter hazardous conditions, such as fire, smoke, radiation, or even terrorists, that prevent them from accomplishing vital tasks," he said. "That's why qualified fire barriers for electrical cable protection and separation were mandated to provide adequate safe shutdown margins in the first place," he concluded.
NRC documents referenced in The Progressive article were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by NIRS. To date, NIRS has discovered a growing documentation of fire code violations at U.S. reactors including: Arkansas Nuclear One 1 & 2, Beaver Valley 2, Comanche Peak 1 & 2, Crystal River, Davis-Besse, Diablo Canyon 1 & 2, Fort Calhoun, Grand Gulf, McGuire 1 & 2, Palo Verde 1, 2 & 3, River Bend, Sequoyah 1 & 2, Shearon Harris, St. Lucie 1 & 2, Turkey Point 3 & 4, and Watts Bar.
For additional details see: http://www2.nirs.org/reactorwatch/fire/fireomanirscommentsfrn11262003.htm
(1) Chapter 10 Code of Federal Regulation Part 50 Appendix R III.G.2 mandates that when redundant safe shutdown circuitry for the control room operated shutdown of the reactor appear in the same fire zone, one system must be physically protected by one of three options; 1) a qualified three-hour fire barrier; 2) a one-hour fire barrier used in conjunction with smoke detectors and automated sprinkler systems or; 3) physical separation of the redundant control, power and instrumentation cable by twenty feet with no intervening combustible and used in conjunction with detection and suppression equipment.
(2) Bulletin No. 92-01, "Failure of Thermo-Lag 330 Fire Barrier Systems To Maintain Cabling in Wide Cable Trays and Small Conduits Free From Fire Damage," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, June 24, 1992.