Fire When NOT Ready

June 24, 2014
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

On June 19, 2014, the NRC Chairman and Commissioners were briefed on the transition of several dozen nuclear power reactors to risk-informed, performance-based fire protection regulations. These regulations use the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Standard 805.

The fire protection regulations adopted by the NRC following the March 1975 fire at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama sought to manage the fire hazard through prescriptive measures like separating electrical cables for primary safety systems from the electrical cables for backup safety systems by at least 20 feet or enclosing at least one set of electrical cables within fire resistant material. The regulations required owners to divide their plants into numerous fire zones (usually each room was considered a fire zone, but some larger rooms were subdivided into multiple fire zones) and evaluate each zone for a postulated fire. The regulations assumed that a fire damaged all cables and components within the zone and required owners to show that sufficient equipment survived outside that zone to safety shut down the reactor core and keep it adequately cooled.

The regulations sought to provide fire safety through the design of the plant—manual actions by workers to compensate for safety equipment disabled by a fire were allowed, but only when reviewed and approved by the NRC. Such manual actions prevented two reactor core meltdowns at Browns Ferry, but the NRC wanted to reserve heroic measures as a safety net instead of being the front line defense.

In the late 1990s, the NRC’s inspectors discovered that many reactors did not comply with the fire protection regulations adopted by the agency in response to the Browns Ferry fire (curiously enough, Browns Ferry’s reactors were among them). The most common and widespread departure from the regulations involved reliance on unapproved and unauthorized manual actions. Owners would tolerate fires disabling primary and backup safety systems by sending workers to the other ends of burned cables to manually start pumps, close valves, and perform whatever other actions that undamaged cables would have enabled. Such manual actions were permissible under the regulations only after the NRC reviewed them and determined staffing levels, training, procedures, and other administrative controls yielded high confidence that the necessary tasks could be completed in a timely manner.

The NRC revised its regulations to provide the NFPA 805 option. Owners could either comply with the regulations adopted after the Browns Ferry fire or the NFPA 805 regulations. The NFPA 805 regulations evaluate postulated fires from a different perspective. The NFPA 805 evaluations essentially construct parallel time lines. One time line tracks the progress of a fire and the equipment disabled by fire, heat, and smoke. The second time line tracks the progress of installed fire suppression systems along with manual actions by workers in coping with the fire. The NFPA 805 regulations are satisfied when the pairs of time lines for all fire zones conclude that fires get extinguished before disabling all the systems needed to safely cool the reactor cores.

My Comments to the NRC

I participated in the June 19 briefing (here is my presentation, with notes). My comments covered three topics: (1) the glacial pace of the transition to the NFPA 805 regulations, (2) the undue elevated risk to the public in the interim, and (3) the broken contract with the public.

The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina and the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina were the pilot plants for the transition to the NFPA 805 regulations. It took 5.1 years at Harris and 5.8 years at Oconee from the time the owners informed the NRC of intent to transition to the NFPA 805 regulations until the time that the NRC formally approved the transition plans (and this doesn’t include the additional time required for the plants to actually implement the plans). The concern I expressed to the Commission was that it is taking longer for subsequent owners to completed the journey from intent to NRC approval than it took these two pilot plants. Typically, pilot efforts take longer because they blaze the trail then followed by ensuing efforts. But the NFPA 805 transitions are experiencing de-acceleration rather than acceleration from the pilot projects. For example, the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California is nearly 8.5 years from its owners informing the NRC of its intent to transition, yet the NRC has not yet approved its transition plan.

The second concern I expressed involved undue risk to the public during the transition period. Fire is a dominant threat for the same reason that tsunami waters threatened Fukushima—both can disable primary systems, their backups, and the backups to the backups. The transition to the NFPA 805 regulations is not merely a paperwork exercise to justify the plant’s existing design and response procedures. Instead, it entails extensive modifications to the plants and revisions to fire response procedures. Industry representatives and NRC staff repeatedly talk about the significant and tangible safety gains achieved via the NFPA 805 transitions. Those safety gains represent the undue risk to the public until the transitions are completed. Safety IOUs, no matter how large, protect no one.

In the meantime, the NRC relies on compensatory measures to manage the fire risk. The compensatory measures include things like workers routinely walking around the plants looking for signs of fire or conditions conducive to fire (e.g., combustible materials stored in unauthorized locations). These compensatory measures are not reviewed and approved by the NRC. In other words, the NRC is using unapproved manual actions as a substitute for the unapproved manual actions that prompted the transitions to NFPA 805. The NRC cranked the gall-meter up to at least 11 with this one.

My third concern was that the NRC has broken a regulatory contract with the public. The NRC’s regulations are three-way contracts between the agency, plant owners, and the public. The regulations protect the owners from the NRC requiring more stringent safety measures. The regulations should also protect the public from the NRC accepting less than compliance with specified safety measures.

The NRC adopted the NFPA 805 regulations on July 16, 2004—nearly a decade ago. Today, more than 40 reactors continue operating despite the NRC knowing for certain that they do not comply with either the Browns Ferry regulations or the NFPA 805 regulations. The NRC set the safety bar, actually two safety bars, and meekly sits back watching as more than 40 reactors limbo beneath the safety bar. The NRC’s inaction is an injustice to millions of Americans living near these reactors. If a fire at one of these reactors harms any American, the NRC should be held accountable for allowing that reactor to operate with known fire protection impairments.


Source: Ohio Citizen Action

Three of the reactors that do not meet either set of fire protection regulations are at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant. Its owner and the NRC cannot look Americans in the eyes and honestly say that Browns Ferry is sufficiently safe. And the NRC cannot really look millions of Americans living near 38 other high risk reactors in the eyes while pledging to protect them, unless their fingers are crossed.