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The Center for Public Integrity

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A More Likely Nuclear Nightmare

Posted: 05/11/11 06:56 AM ET

By Susan Q. Stranahan

The safety plan for any nuclear power plant reads like a doomsday book. Earthquakes, floods, airplane crashes, mass evacuations, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, tornadoes -- all are disaster scenarios deemed a risk to reactor safety. The most likely threat, however, involves none of these headline cataclysms.

Fires regularly occur at the 104 U.S. nuclear plants, nearly 10 times a year on average. About half the accidents that threaten reactor cores begin with fires that can start from a short circuit in an electric cable, a spark that ignites the oil in a pump, or an explosion in a transformer. Even a small fire could trigger a chain of events that threatens a meltdown, and some have come close.

Check out additional reporting and videos on iWatch News' site.

Just a year ago, a South Carolina nuclear plant suffered two fires in a single day -- ironically on the 31st anniversary of the nation's worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. The seven-hour crisis escaped much national notice even though it left half the plant without adequate power or a reliable supply of cooling water for its reactors, a situation worsened by workers' unfamiliarity with the proper safety response.

Despite growing concerns, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hardly ever issues serious penalties for fires, preferring instead for voluntary compliance and slaps on the wrist, a review by iWatch News found. The South Carolina plant, for instance, received low-level written citations that carried no penalty after the March 2010 fires.

The low-key approach has some safety experts and political leaders worried that America is poised for an epic, yet preventable, nuclear disaster.

"The NRC is to nuclear power today what the SEC was to Wall Street three years ago," said Richard Brodsky, a former Westchester, N.Y., assemblyman who draws comparisons between current nuclear regulation with the lax enforcement that preceded the recent fiscal crisis. Brodsky opposes the two reactors at Indian Point, N.Y., the commercial nuclear plant nearest New York City that could impact the largest number of people anywhere in the country.

The nation's chief nuclear regulator, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, acknowledges fire concerns have faced too low a priority in the past but he is intent on changing that. "In the last couple of years this has been a significant priority for the agency, and I think right now it has the priority it needs," Jaczko said in an interview with iWatch News.

At the same time, "it doesn't mean we've solved all the problems," he added.

The NRC flexed its muscle Tuesday, issuing a rare "red finding" - its most serious violation - against the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant near Athens, Ala., after investigating how a valve on a residual heat removal system became stuck shut. Officials said the valve's failure could have left one of the plant's emergency cooling systems unable to function in an emergency such as a plant fire. 

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, acknowledges the peril. "Fire is an important concern," it says in a fact sheet for investors, executives and policymakers, "because it has the potential to affect critical systems needed to safely maintain and shut down the reactor."

Yet when it comes to this commonplace threat that is more predictable and preventable than tsunamis or earthquakes, federal regulators tread lightly, allowing power companies wide latitude in deciding how to safeguard the nation's 104 nuclear plants, an iWatch News examination of records and interviews with utility industry insiders has found. 

For instance, the NRC, the federal agency charged with protecting health and safety, has so routinely exempted utilities from what's on the books to safeguard plants from fires that some companies no longer bother to request an exception. Even when safety flaws are identified, the NRC allows operators to voluntarily come up with their own solutions. And some reactors operate for years on temporary fixes. When blazes recur at the same plant, penalties tend to be minimal.

Fire safety at some reactors now hinges on how long it takes a worker to perform up to 20 tasks such as unlocking cabinets, finding a ladder, locating a fire hose or flame suppressant, checking for radiation, donning protective clothing, and then quenching a blaze -- a timed exercise rather than a fix such as reliable fireproofing or a sprinkler system.

Luckily in the South Carolina incident, in March 2010, a backup transformer ensured the reactor core was not damaged. But nuclear industry insiders say the near miss was more serious than has been widely acknowledged. "This is one of the most significant events in years," noted the Professional Reactor Operator Society, in an summary of the event, published last July. Yet the incident resulted in little more than a written slap on the wrist from the NRC. The NRC found no "immediate" safety concerns, and the low-level citations it issued to the owner carried no penalties, documents show.

On other fronts, the NRC has acquired a reputation for being lenient and too close to industry. For instance, despite compelling evidence after September 11, 2001, that reactors could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks, the NRC still allowed many security gaps. And the NRC has allowed reactors to continue operating despite known design problems and deteriorating equipment that could lead to a loss of coolant and fuel damage. At some two dozen of the nation's reactors, spent fuel sits in unsecured, above-ground storage pools -- a radiological threat underscored by recent events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The potentially lethal waste in those pools far exceeds the stored rods in Japan.

Of greatest concern at Indian Point, besides whether the plant can withstand an earthquake: Inadequate fire protection and a threat that workers say has been minimized by regulators for years -- a major interstate natural gas line that runs 200 yards from the control room.

Indian Point sits 35 miles north of Manhattan.

The current chairman of the NRC, Jaczko, has described his agency's fire protection rules as "an unwieldy and confusing patchwork of requirements." The NRC -- with the backing of industry -- is trying a different approach to fire safety. Instead of requiring repair of an identified problem, like faulty insulation on electrical cables, regulators will work with utilities to calculate the odds of something going wrong. If the risk is low enough, a repair will no longer be deemed critical to safety.

Under the new plan, utilities can identify possible fire threats, address how likely they are, and say what the consequences would be. On the surface, it seems like a simple, common-sense approach.

However, as a 2006 manual prepared by the NRC and the industry notes, accurate predictions are difficult. Nuclear plants are too complex - too many things can happen. Even though sophisticated computer programs help engineers model how different kinds of fire might move and affect each small space within a reactor, plotted out on grids, certainty is elusive. "There are typically hundreds of thousands to several million grid cells [within the reactor] and thousands to hundreds of thousands of time steps" that must be factored in to each assessment of what could happen, according to the seven-volume manual.

Although the NRC and the industry's Electric Power Research Institute set out a series of fire "models" in the document, the experts are quick to note they haven't thought of everything.

"Given the complexity and range of features in current fire models, it is impractical to evaluate the accuracy of every model output," concluded some of the manual's co-authors in a 2007 article in Fire Protection Engineering magazine. "Users of the report [should] be aware that scenarios falling outside of these bounds have not been rigorously validated."

The NRC will require utilities simply to provide "reasonable assurance" they have "minimized" the probability and consequences of fires, documents show. For instance, instead of fireproofing a critical safety system, the reactor owner can simply send out a worker to sniff for smoke.

The agency calls this approach fire "protection," not "prevention."

Critics complain the new approach is tantamount to gambling. "There's a saying about safety in numbers. Not these numbers," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and former NRC instructor who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety project.

And some engineers within the industry aren't buying it. They have doubts about the approach, saying it's not ready and they'd rather make meaningful equipment fixes than rely on questionable computer models of what could happen.

"There's no way in hell I'm going to jump in this pool until the water settles down," Danny L. Pace, a vice president of engineering at First Energy Corp., told members of an NRC reactor safety advisory committee in December 2010, according to a transcript of the meeting.

Added Pace, whose company owns the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants in Ohio, as well as Beaver Valley Power Station in Pennsylvania: "I believe we'll resolve these modeling issues. I believe we'll have a more stable environment sometime down the road, but it is not there today. It's full of crocodiles today."

Spending $20 million to move electrical panels around, he noted, might be better than spending $20 million "on analysis." That way, at least the utility would have "really made a fundamental change in the physical plant itself" to enhance safety.

Downplaying risks that have a low probability fits neatly into the overall safety culture that prevails throughout the nuclear industry and those who regulate it. It appeals to many engineers, scientists and others who want to set safety priorities based on the probability of a mishap, not merely the possibility.

But unlikely events do happen. Case in point: Japan.

"The phrase 'it can't happen here' has been a harbinger of trouble in the nuclear industry," said Peter Bradford, an NRC commissioner during Three Mile Island who now teaches about nuclear power and public policy at Vermont Law School. "Specific accidents don't repeat themselves. Failures of reactor owners and regulators to anticipate and defend against remote but not impossible contingencies do."

The nuclear industry is quick to point out that a fire has not significantly threatened a reactor since 1975, when a candle ignited insulation at the Browns Ferry reactor near Decatur, Alabama, burning seven hours, damaging critical cooling system circuitry, and dispelling any thoughts among regulators and industry that fires were not a potentially serious safety threat to a reactor core.

Today, fires are an accepted reality at nuclear plants.

"These are large installations with a lot of electrical equipment, and fires do occur despite all your efforts," said John Butler, senior director of engineering operation support at the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute. "What's important is, are they detected quickly and is the plant response appropriate? That is what needs to be evaluated."

Gaps in enforcement and regulation

An examination by iWatch News of NRC documents, as well as interviews with people who have worked for the industry and the nuclear regulatory agency, show that when it comes to fire threats, gaping holes exist in enforcement, research and planning involving the nation's 104 reactors.

Among the findings:

  • Even as regulators push utilities to "risk-based" fire protection, the NRC lacks information needed to calculate and model the risks. Within the NRC, some existing data, meanwhile, is being challenged as unreliable. For instance, determining how fast certain electrical cables burn -- cables vital to a safe shutdown -- is still not completed. Internal memos made public by a watchdog group in April disclosed NRC staffers' doubts about whether reactors could withstand a Fukushima-like earthquake or tsunami. The doubts conflict with regulators' public statements that U.S. plants can withstand such events -- assertions based on risk assessment data.
  • The NRC has extended 50 reactors' operating licenses another 20 years -- despite knowledge that many have unresolved fire hazards. License extensions for 16 more reactors, reaching the 40-year lifespans for which they were engineered, are under review. Included are the two reactors at Indian Point. Although the NRC has promised to review seismic standards before renewing the licenses, it has not indicated it will also review fire protection efforts.
  • Many utilities have made only "temporary" fixes to reactor safety equipment, steps that have remained in place for years.The NRC has not required permanent improvements or repairs and, even with the stepped-up emphasis on fire safety, operators will be given several more years to come into compliance.
  • The NRC has knowingly allowed utilities to rely on worthless fireproofing insulation.The issue, which first arose in 1989, hasn't been resolved. After 17 years, the NRC finally ordered industry to deal with the problem -- only to face resistance from industry. Result: The NRC granted more exemptions. Bottom line: Faulty insulation remains at many plants, including Indian Point.
  • Regulators have taken meager steps to remedy identified shortcomings even at nuclear plants where multiple fires have occurred. Back-to-back fires last year at the H.B. Robinson reactor in South Carolina could have triggered a series of events threatening the core. In March, the NRC chairman labeled the H.B. Robinson reactor as one of three in the U.S. "we are most concerned about," in part because of the fires and poor maintenance. Yet after investigating the fires, the NRC rated them of low to moderate safety significance and put the plant on a watch list for a year, meaning the NRC will give it more oversight, adding some announced inspections and examinations of employees.   
  • For more than 30 years the NRC has been routinely granting exemptions to reactor fire regulations. The NRC has been so quick to hand out exemptions -- more than 900 by 2001 -- that utilities eventually stopped asking for them, figuring advance approval was not required. The NRC did not challenge that position and thus often was not consulted, meaning that shortcuts around fire safety rules were unilaterally put in place by reactor operators. The agency issued so many that its own inspectors complained that they couldn't tell which plants were in compliance and which weren't -- because nobody kept track of all the exemptions.

In 2008, federal auditors criticized the NRC for not even compiling a list of its exemptions to fire code rules. Last year, the NRC prepared a database. The list is incomplete, the NRC's own records show. Among missing exemptions: The most recent, issued March 30 to owners of the nation's oldest reactor, Oyster Creek Generating Station in Ocean County, N.J. Oyster Creek is nearly identical in design to the reactors at Fukushima.

Exelon Corp., which owns Oyster Creek, had pleaded financial hardship, despite profits of $2.7 billion a year. In a letter to the NRC, Exelon complained of "an unwarranted burden"  from being required to protect a backup reactor shutdown system, including moving critical cable systems more than 20 feet apart. The NRC said it did not weigh costs in its decision to grant the request and that the company did not provide any substantiation of its claims of financial hardship. But the commission exempted the New Jersey plant from the modifications, allowing operators instead to dispatch employees to as many as 21 areas of the plant in the event of a fire to protect the equipment.

Exelon Nuclear spokeswoman April Schilpp declined to provide the costs of moving cable systems and of the other remedies, noting how routinely the NRC grants exemptions.

 "Exelon is in full compliance" with regulations, said Schilpp. "Exemptions such as these are not uncommon in the industry and provide for safety with more than adequate margin." Schlipp said the company "is confident in our safety systems, rigorous procedures, and our operators' training to ensure their actions protect the health and safety of the public at all times."

The NRC itself has noted the risks of allowing utilities to develop extensive fire response plans relying on employees rather than requiring remedies to equipment. In a 2008 assessment of fire safety efforts, the Government Accountability Office -- referring to regulators' own statements -- observed that, according to the agency,"nuclear fire safety can be considered to be degraded when reliance on passive measures [such as sprinklers] is supplanted by manual actions or compensatory measures" such as sending a fire crew to extinguish a blaze after it has broken out.

Yet that is exactly what the NRC has allowed to happen at reactors across the country.

A 'near miss' -- and meek response from the NRC

Even seemingly small fires at a nuclear power plant can have severe consequences. About 40 percent of the fires reported at reactors involve electrical problems, in part due to the vast amount of cables and circuitry snaking through the plant. A typical boiling-water reactor has about 360 miles of cables ferrying electricity or running controls and instruments. Those cables and wiring act like the brakes on a car, guaranteeing that you can slow down and stop the reaction. Protecting those lines in an emergency is crucial if the reactor is to be shut down and its core cooled.

Those brakes fail more often than many people may realize, cascading close to calamity -- no earthquake or tsunami necessary. Sometimes, all it takes is a faulty light socket.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on March 28, 2010, a 4,160-volt electrical cable in the H.B. Robinson nuclear plant in Hartsville, S.C., shorted out, sparking a fire. A circuit breaker designed to cut power to the cable failed, allowing electricity to flow into the ground. This reduced voltage to the large pump that circulates water through the reactor core.

Without enough power, the flow of water slowed and the reactor automatically shut down. The electrical problems damaged a transformer that should have produced backup power for the plant, leaving a second transformer as the plant's sole source of power. That left half the plant's equipment without electricity.

Lacking power, valves on the main steam drain lines opened and temperatures in the reactor plummeted, threatening the integrity of the piping and reactor vessel.

Operators had no idea the drain valves were open. Nor did they know the temperature had dropped sharply.

Then, 33 minutes later, another power failure: The drain lines closed.

Still, employees had no idea what was going on. For another 30 minutes, they failed to notice the lack of water needed to protect seals on pumps that supply the reactor cooling system. Normally when a reactor shuts down, auxiliary pumps flush the reactor with extra water from a storage tank. This time, the tank didn't refill and ran dry.

Nearly an hour passed before employees noticed.

About 10:30 p.m., operators attempted to restore power to the failed circuitry. But they didn't check first to see if it had been repaired. It had not. That caused a second blaze, triggering an emergency alert. This time, the fire affected equipment directly responsible for safely shutting down the reactor -- or not.

The plant's fire crew responded and the fire was put out in about 30 minutes. Backup power was used to cool the reactor.

In a later report on the incident, the NRC noted that the cable involved in the first fire lacked proper insulation. Instead of protecting wiring from the fire, flames spread along its length. A warning light that might have indicated problems with the circuit breaker was out, thanks to a faulty socket. The light hadn't worked for a year and a half.

The NRC criticized operator errors, ranging from employees' failure to notice how fast the reactor was cooling to their re-energizing the cable without first determining if it still posed a fire hazard.

The series of mishaps at Robinson were eerily similar to many that caused the Three Mile Island reactor to experience a partial meltdown exactly 31 years earlier. There, a mechanical or electrical failure shut down the main feedwater pumps, coolant poured out of a stuck valve, and operators failed to understand what was occurring. Ultimately, the reactor overheated and half the fuel melted.

At Robinson, the small fire set off a domino effect of equipment malfunctions worsened by operator mistakes and failure to understand just what was happening. Although backup safety systems kept the reactor core from harm, the post-accident analysis by the NRC painted a picture of an accident spinning rapidly out of control. It was the fortuitous power failure 33 minutes into the event, closing the drain lines, that prevented further damage. Nearly seven hours after the cable shorted, the emergency was declared over.

Only six months later, the NRC was back at Robinson after the reactor again shut down when a motor failed in a feedwater pump. The auxiliary feedwater system kicked in. Concerned that continued reliance on the auxiliary system might warrant a "red" violation from the NRC -- a finding of "high safety significance" that might result in a rare order to shut down the plant -- the operators struggled to restart the normal feedwater system about 10 hours into the incident.

To do so, they overrode system equipment, meaning the plant operated without safety protection for more than three hours until the problem was corrected.

In its findings about the October accident, the NRC noted that the plant operators had been aware since 2003 of deterioration of the pump motor but had yet to repair it. That was what triggered the accident, they concluded.

Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum, a respected safety specialist, said he considers the Robinson fire the nation's "most significant near miss" among 14 reactor accidents he examined for the Union of Concerned Scientists last year.

A spokesman for the plant's owner, Progress Energy, disagreed, saying the incidents were not so serious, and that shortcomings had been corrected.

"Following the event in March of 2010," said the spokeswoman, Jessica Lambert, "the NRC stated that the health and safety of the public was never in jeopardy." She said the views of Lochbaum and others represented "an extremely selective and limited view of the NRC inspection process and industry corrective action programs."

When the NRC delivered its annual assessment of Robinson in March 2011, the commission took note of four unplanned outages at the plant during the previous year and announced that it would step up oversight of operations for the next 12 months.

"We were disappointed with the regulatory performance at H.B. Robinson last year," Richard Croteau of the NRC told the owners of the reactor, Progress Energy, at a public meeting. Progress, based in Raleigh, N.C., led the Union of Concerned Scientists' list of reactors experiencing "near misses" in 2010, with four accidents at three reactors.

Still, the citations handed out by the NRC were only the second lowest of five possible sanctions, and the NRC said in February it believes the plant "continues to operate safely."Under the NRC reactor oversight process, inspection findings are evaluated using a color. Findings with very low safety significance are labeled "green." "White" findings have low to moderate safety significance, "yellow" findings have substantial safety significance, and "red" findings have high safety significance. The problems at Robinson warranted three "white" findings.

NRC Chairman Jaczko, in March 2011 testimony before a House energy subcommittee, referred to Robinson as one of three "plants we are most concerned about." The other two are the Fort Calhoun reactor in Nebraska and Wolf Creek in Kansas, where emergency systems to keep reactors cool had failed.

Robinson will be subject to a year of added oversight by NRC inspectors, who will monitor safety remedies underway at the plant.  

Progress Energy's Lambert said the utility has, among other things, filled vacancies, added new staff to reduce maintenance backlogs,  increased training for reactor operators, undertaken reviews to assess worker qualifications and the effectiveness of supervisors, and revised work priorities based on the safety significance of equipment.

"We are taking definitive steps to address the issues raised [by the NRC] and return the Robinson plant to the highest industry performance standards," she said in an email.

Failure to improve performance at the plant could result in senior NRC management taking a role in operations.

The Union of Concerned Scientists' Lochbaum said the safety plan implemented at Robinson "seems thorough and adequate" and "sufficient to turn over all the necessary rocks, find all the hidden problems, and fix them."

But, he asked, "Why did it take a fire -- nay, two fires -- for these many problems to be recognized?"

A legacy of fires -- and delays

When it comes to fire prevention, regulators have tallied plenty of fires -- and acquired a long history of dawdling over fixes.

In the 13 years ending in January 2008, according to a count by the GAO, 125 fires had been reported at 54 of 65 locations where 104 reactors are operating. That's nearly 10 fires a year.  Eight fires were recorded in 2009, according to NRC records. Some of those fires damaged or destroyed equipment. Many of the events were relatively trivial, and on the surface, at least, little different from the small incidents that plague many complex industrial facilities. Oil refineries, for instance, also have experienced a spate of fires in recent years, underscoring how little-noticed, seemingly minor incidents provide telltale clues about big hazards.

What's different about a nuclear plant is what sits inside: highly radioactive fuel. If exposed to air or water outside the containment building, it can contaminate large areas or sicken thousands. Decisions made -- or not made -- in a matter of minutes can trigger events with disastrous outcomes.

"Factors contributing to small or minor events almost always also contribute to catastrophic events," said Lochbaum, who is a nuclear engineer..

Prior to the mid-1970s, the nuclear power industry followed fire codes used by other industrial operations. Regulators and the industry did not fully understand that fires could threaten a reactor's ability to safely shut down. Then came a fire at the Browns Ferry reactor, started with nothing more than a flickering candle.

"Whereas [fire] was before seen as primarily an insurance concern or an industrial hazard, it was properly understood after Browns Ferry as an important nuclear safety issue," the NRC's Jaczko said in a speech May 6 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The candle, used to detect air leaks in safety seals, instead ignited fire retardant foam that turned out to be quite combustible. Before the fire was extinguished seven hours later, it had damaged some 1,600 electrical cables, more than 600 of which were important to reactor safety, including all emergency core cooling system pumps for the Unit 1 reactor.

Although Browns Ferry illustrated the potential hazards from fire, the NRC took its time addressing the problem. It wasn't until 1980 that the commission approved fire safety regulations, spelled out in a section of the code of federal regulations known as 10 CFR 50.48. Part of those regulations includes a special section, known as Appendix R,that set rules for the 58 reactors in operation as of Jan. 1, 1979. Newer reactors were allowed to apply for deviations to fire safety rules under a different federal code.

From the outset, however, the NRC began handing out exemptions to those rules because owners of many plants complained that the rules were expensive and difficult to meet. Most U.S. reactors had been built or were in their final design stages by the beginning of 1979, and thus accommodating the safety upgrades would have been complicated and costly.

Instead, the NRC let reactor owners devise their own alternatives, some of which the NRC approved, some of which it didn't even know about. Regulators believed the industry should take the lead on fire safety.

Many of those exemptions involve what are called "operator manual actions." Simply put, instead of having an automatic safety system, the utility vows to take certain actions in the event of fire -- for instance, sending a worker into the plant to manually turn a valve or activate a pump to ensure that the reactor can be shut down.

This may be a far cheaper way to put out a fire or save the reactor core -- but reactors are so complex the steps aren't always quick and easy. At one plant, for instance, a fire scenario calls for the operator to perform more than 20 separate actions within 25 minutes to achieve a safe shutdown.Those actions might have to be performed in smoke, heat, darkness or radiation releases.

Just finding the fire might take 20 minutes. On the night of Oct. 29, 2008, for instance, a fire broke out at Plymouth Nuclear Station in Plymouth, Mass. It took a fire brigade between 15 and 20 minutes to find the fire after the control room was first alerted, according to an NRC account. Then, once the fire was "visually verified," it took another 19 minutes to extinguish. And this was a fire in a laboratory in a maintenance building -- not the reactor.

Another type of exemption is called an "interim compensatory measure." That may be nothing more than allowing the utility to deploy a roving watchman sniffing for fire, a prevention measure in use at a number of U.S. reactors.

That fact that so many fires -- about 40 percent  -- involve electrical problems is in large part due to the miles of cable and circuitry spread throughout the plant, the arteries and veins that all flow into the "heart" of the plant, the control room. Protecting those cables in the event of fire is critical. After Browns Ferry, reactor owners were advised to protect their critical cable trays with fireproof insulation.

Appendix R rules require that these fire barriers or "wraps" withstand a one-hour blaze in areas with fire detection systems or sprinklers, or a three-hour fire in areas without those systems. Reactor owners commonly used products called Thermo-Lag and Hemyc.

In 1989, the NRC learned that Thermo-Lag, the most popular of the fire wraps, used in about 100 reactors, had failed fire tests. Subsequent tests raised additional doubts about the product's ability to withstand fire. In 1992, the NRC notified reactor owners of its concerns.

In 1993, NRC staff recommended a review of all fire barrier materials used to protect critical cables. But reactor owners were not required to remove them; many utilities simply filed for exemptions to Appendix R and devised their own fire drills, relying on operator manual actions.

When asked by Congress why it took four years to deal with the fire-prone fire wraps, NRC chairman Ivan Sellin quoted from an internal report: "In some cases there appears to be reluctance on the part of the staff because of the general view that fire protection concerns were rarely serious safety concerns."

When, in 1993, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) finally tested Hemyc for the NRC, the insulation didn't even come close to meeting the one-hour rule. It failed in just 23 minutes.

In another test, performed by Sandia National Laboratory, it survived only 13 minutes.

For reasons that still are unclear, the NRC did not communicate the Hemyc test results to the 15 plants where it was in use, the NRC's inspector general found in 2008.

In 1999, an inspection at the Shearon Harris reactor in North Carolina turned up more problems with Hemyc. Plant engineers couldn't prove to NRC inspectors' satisfaction that the insulation would protect the primary and backup safety systems. According to the NRC, the fire test data the utility relied upon when it installed Hemyc was "nonconservative." Cable damage could occur "without indication of excessive temperature on the cables," the NRC concluded.

Inspections at other plants, including Waterford Nuclear Generating Station in Louisiana and McGuire Nuclear Station in North Carolina, came up with similar doubts about the product's performance. That prompted an NRC staff review of the earlier test results.

In August 2000, the NRC decided to conduct more tests, but didn't get around to doing so for five years -- because of negotiations with the industry, which didn't want to pay for the tests. The industry's argument: Because the agency had originally certified the test results, plant owners had technically been in compliance with the regulations. The industry refused to voluntarily upgrade the fire barriers.

In tests the NRC eventually did conduct, Hemyc failed again, and in April 2005 the commission published its test results. Even so, the NRC still did not require plant owners to take any action -- or even respond in writing.

Finally, in April 2006, the NRC notified plant owners of the Hemyc failures -- and gave the owners until December 2007 to describe how they planned to resolve the problems.

Through the deliberations over insulation, the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute and its utility members played a role in shaping the outcome.

When the NRC set the 2007 deadline, the NEI pushed back, saying the requirement would be expensive without providing a demonstrable improvement of safety.

"If this approach is followed," NEI senior vice president Marvin Fertel wrote NRC chairman Nils Diaz in March 2006, "we estimate that more than 1,500 exemption requests will be formally submitted to the NRC. We further believe the great majority of these exemption requests have no safety significance."

The NRC withdrew the rule and replaced with it a document setting out "regulatory expectations" for operator manual actions.

The one-hour and three-hour rules are still in effect.

Among the plants that continue to use Hemyc as a fire barrier is Indian Point. In June 2006, the plant's owner, Entergy, notified the NRC that it had implemented "fire watch tours" in lieu of replacing the Hemyc. That was one of many operator manual actions instituted at the plant. Entergy maintains it is in compliance with its license, and the NRC concurs. Others disagree.

On March 18, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman formally asked the NRC to assess all public health and safety risks to the public posed by Indian Point as part of its relicensing review, including the reactors' ability to withstand earthquakes, as well as the adequacy of the fire protection plan.

According to Schneiderman's petition, 275 separate fire zones at the two reactors require operator manual actions if safety circuits are damaged by fire. In some instances, Schneiderman noted, multiple tasks might be required in each zone to safely avert a fire.

By Schneiderman's count, Indian Point has been granted in excess of 100 exemptions. A spokesman for Entergy told reporters the number is about 30. According to the NRC's official exemption database, meanwhile, Indian Point has received just six, although multiple exemptions may be included with each listing. When asked about the disparity in numbers, an NRC spokesman said its count was accurate.

Indian Point's upcoming license renewal has also been under assault in a federal court for several years. On March 4, a federal judge dismissed a complaint filed against the NRC by several citizens' groups, challenging the NRC's exemptions to Appendix R. Although the judge rejected the petition, the challengers are expected to pursue the matter further.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has called Indian Point "a catastrophe waiting to happen,"  has recently called on the NRC to re-examine the plant's ability to withstand an earthquake. In the past he has raised concerns over vulnerability to terrorists as well as safety concerns at the plant due to age.

In response, Entergy has launched a media campaign. "All who work here have complete confidence in the safety of our plants," is the message of one radio spot. "We continuously upgrade our systems, train constantly and build redundancies in all our operations to assure safety. Our families and friends live here, too. We would not be here if we didn't also believe that Indian Point provides clean, reliable, lower-cost power, safely."

 

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