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Contact: Jim Warren, NC WARN 919-416-5077
April 28, 2008 New Fire Program at Nuclear Plant is in Shambles
Watchdogs say NRC misled Congressman, demand feds suspend Harris license
DURHAM, NC – A controversial fire protection pilot program intended to remedy 16 years of broken promises over safety at the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant has itself collapsed into indefinite delay. Three watchdog groups today sent a federal report to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Gregory Jaczko indicating Progress Energy is still years away from compliance with critical safety regulations. They insisted that the five-member Commission use its discretionary authority to suspend Harris’ license, drop the pilot program, and order the plant into compliance with existing fire regulations for the protection of vital safe shutdown systems.
Also, the groups told U.S. Rep. David Price in a separate letter that NRC Chairman Dale Klein repeatedly misled the congressman earlier this month when responding to Price’s concerns about lax fire enforcement by the agency. Congressional frustration with NRC has grown markedly in recent months.
Fire is a leading risk factor for core meltdown at nuclear plants because it can disable control cables for 20-plus systems needed to shut down and cool the reactor core. Today, Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists and Beyond Nuclear, along with NC WARN of Durham, told Jaczko they believe his agency’s fire protection engineers have been bullied by the industry for too long, and that those professionals need the Commissioners’ support to enforce compliance at plants where fire barriers have been found to offer less than the required level of cable protection.
“Among all the federal agencies gutted by political pressure to protect big corporations, the NRC is probably the worst,” said Jim Warren of NC WARN today. “The FAA was forced to finally order airlines to fix wiring problems that could bring down a plane, but the NRC has for 16 years let Shearon Harris dodge similar corrections that could devastate several states with radioactive fallout.”
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Progress Energy repeatedly promised NRC it would soon replace inoperable fire barriers called Thermo-lag and Hemyc. But meanwhile, the Raleigh-based utility and others vigorously lobbied for NRC to relax the rules instead of forcing multi-million dollar corrections. When NRC fire engineers balked, Progress volunteered to adopt a new regulatory program based on complex risk studies on the likelihood of fires.
Under growing pressure from public interest groups – as well as local and state officials – calling for financial penalties or license suspension until the violations are fixed, Harris promised last year to apply for a license amendment this June, thus finally establishing a formal timetable for “upgrading” the plant’s fire protection. But a 116-page NRC staff report sent last month to Harris officials is replete with evidence that the transitional fire protection program is once again badly behind schedule. Among the pages of criticism, the agency wrote: “Very little detailed fire modeling has been done ... major changes to the modeling and resulting risk estimates are to be expected.”
“NRC has too long turned a blind eye on violations that in the event of fire mean the difference between safely shutting Harris down and a meltdown,” said Paul Gunter with Takoma Park, MD-based Beyond Nuclear. “NRC could become the Phoenix arising out of the shambles of its fire protection program by enforcement of the standing law,” said Gunter.
Commissioner Jaczko met twice with the watchdog groups in 2007, agreeing that years of noncompliance must end but urging patience with the new regulatory program. In today’s letter to Jaczko, NC WARN attorney John Runkle called the pilot program a trap where “NRC allows the nuclear plant operators another free ride because they are ‘studying’ the fire problem, rather than fixing it.”
Shearon Harris, located near Raleigh, uses more of the failed fire barrier – over 1.5 miles – than any other plant. Harris has suffered several past fires, including an electrical system blaze that destroyed much of the turbine building. The critics predicted in 2006 that shifting to the new, risk-based regulations would be used as an excuse for even more delay. Moreover, they warned that the new regulations based on “risk assessment” disregard the potential for fires caused by acts of malice. Numerous federal studies confirm that nuclear plants could be devastated by a variety of attack scenarios.
Last year, Rep. Price of North Carolina launched a Government Accountability Office investigation into the NRC’s oversight of fire protection, with a report expected by summer. On a separate track Rep. John Dingell plans to conduct hearings over various complaints against NRC, including the fire issue.
In January, the NRC’s Inspector General issued a report highly critical of the NRC, noting the agency has known since 1994 that the Hemyc barrier fails fire tests in minutes – less than half the duration required by NRC regulations. Of the 16 plants the IG found to be in violation, six are owned by NC-based Progress Energy and Duke Energy. To compensate for the years of noncompliance – the NRC is allowing the plants to rely on “interim” measures that have been neither tested nor approved by the agency.
The watchdogs told Rep. Price that NRC Chairman Klein’s letter to him seems deliberately worded to mislead the Congressman on key fire issues, and they believe Klein’s fellow commissioners and public affairs office warned him against sending the letter. Klein has been cited several times since 2006 for issuing deceptive statements regarding fire protections and nuclear plant defenses, and for promoting the industry he is charged with regulating.
“We look forward to the GAO report on fire protection that Rep. Price requested” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The NRC seems unable to make progress resolving fire protection problems by itself. Continued Congressional oversight attention can only hasten the day when millions of Americans are no longer at undue risk.”
Lochbaum and the others say it is obvious that Progress Energy still hasn’t made fire safety a priority since it hasn’t devoted the resources needed to keep its latest promises. They said it is time for NRC to force the company to make physical changes required under standing fire safety regulations.
The letters to Commissioner Jaczko and Rep. Price can be found at the top right of www.ncwarn.org