Washington , DC, October 2 — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) yesterday proposed a $900,000 fine against the manufacturer of an inoperable fire barrier,one of the largest fines ever issued by the agency. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service warned that the barriers still are installed in 46 nuclear power plants around the country.
NRC issued the proposed fine on October 1, 1996 against the St. Louis firm Thermal Sciences, Inc. and its owner Mr. Rubin Feldman. The nine separate violations allege that the vendor deliberately provided inaccurate and/or incomplete information pertaining to the performance of its fire barrier product, called Thermo-Lag.
The NRC declared the fire barrier “inoperable” in 1992 after independent fire tests revealed that the barrier was as combustible as “treated plywood” and consistently failed NRC fire endurance requirements. The NRC then required utilities to institute hourly fire patrols to “compensate” for the substandard fire barriers. However, the agency so far has refused to order the barriers removed.
“Working with an industry whistleblower, we challenged this dangerous fire hazard in U.S. nuclear power plants five years ago,” said Paul Gunter,head of NIRS’ Reactor Watchdog Project. “The NRC has now fined the company for lying about its product’s quality but all that has been done by the industry and the regulator is to paper over the problem,” said Gunter. “As long as the NRC and the utilities have been aware of this problem, they have only been able to generate stacks of paper that would really be more effective as a fire barrier than Thermo-Lag itself,” said Gunter.
“The NRC should have ordered this combustible material removed and replaced years ago,” continued Gunter. “Because of a multimillion-dollar price tag to remove Thermo-Lag and replace it with a fire barrier that works, the nuclear utilities have successfully stalled any effective action to protect the public in the event of fire,” said Gunter.
Gunter argued that the “fire watch” personnel currently walking hourly patrols through nuclear reactors !QW! the fire barrier has been installed do not constitute an effective compensatory measure.
“Thermo-Lag was falsely promised to the nuclear industry as a way to suppress and retard fire to protect vital electrical cables for up to three hours” said Gunter. “Public safety is in jeopardy in the event that human access is denied by fire, smoke or radiation,” said Gunter. “These reactors are essentially unprotected from fire,” concluded Gunter. An NRC study states that a typical nuclear power plant will have 2 to 3 significant fires during its operational life. Fire constitutes as much as 50% of the risk of events leading to a core melt accident according to the NRC.
Gerald Brown, of Brown Consulting Services, the original whistleblower on the Thermo-Lag issue is also available for comment.