More Foot Dragging on Fire Regulations at Oconee

, former co-director | January 3, 2013, 7:36 pm EDT
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One of the top safety issues the NRC needs to address is requiring nuclear plants to comply with fire regulations to make sure that fires can’t disable multiple layers of safety features that could lead to core damage.

Despite acknowledging the danger of fires—an NRC official estimated that the risk of reactor meltdown from fire hazards is roughly equal to the meltdown risk from all other hazards combined—the NRC has been incredibly lax about requiring plants to comply with its regulations, which were first established in 1980—more than 30 years ago.

Until recently, we knew of at least 47 reactors (out of a current total of 104 operating reactors) that did not comply with either the 1980 regulations or with an alternate set of regulations the NRC established in 2004. Of the 51 reactors that had said they were preparing to comply with the 2004 regulations, four reactors—one at Shearon Harris (NC) and three at Oconee (SC)—were believed to have successfully made the transition as part of a pilot program to show the way for other plants.

This appeared to be progress, although at a snail’s pace.

But it turns out even that apparent progress was 75% illusory.

A news article from Dec. 17 reported that in fact Duke Energy, which owns Oconee, has now told the NRC that its three reactors are still not in compliance, despite agreeing to a January 2013 deadline back in 2010.

And it apparently didn’t even come close: the plant has asked the NRC for two more years to comply.

Oconee isn’t the only plant asking for more time. For example, in May 2012 the NRC approved another one-year delay to the owner of the Browns Ferry nuclear plant (AL) for its transition to the 2004 regulations. In addition, the Arkansas Nuclear One Unit 1 (AR) and Beaver Valley (PA) reactors have requested extensions for submitting license amendment requests.

It may seem absurd that after more than 30 years at least 50 reactors do not comply with fire regulations. What is equally absurd is that the NRC will almost certainly grant the delay, as it always does. The NRC seems incapable of enforcing deadlines—even mutually agreed ones. It could instead, for example, levy a stiff daily or monthly fine on the plant until it complies with the regulations.

The recent GAO report on fire safety at U.S. reactors ends with a table showing a schedule for the remaining 47 reactors that have said they are taking steps to comply with the 2004 fire regulations to actually do so (p. 32). This may look like progress. But the foot-dragging at Oconee, the NRC’s likely acquiescence to it, and the numerous extensions granted previously leads one to conclude the dates in the table are written with an Etch-a-sketch rather than carved in stone.


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  • richard

    While this is clearly distressing, it is still important to know that the NRC CONTINUES to fail to do its job. Thank you for that.

    However, you did not make any mention of what can be done about it. Should letters/emails be sent to our Senators or Reps in the House to alert them to this failing of the NRC? Should letters be sent to the editorial pages of various local newspapers about this?

    By not suggesting any course of action you leave one with the impression that you, and by extension UCS, appear to be as passive as the NRC is. Is this true?

    • David Wright

      This is an issue we are focusing a lot of attention on, engaging the NRC, people in Congress, and local officials. Sen. Boxer (D-CA), who is chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, has been holding a series of hearings with the NRC Commissioners. This issue is one of her concerns and will be the subject of a hearing in the next couple months. Writing to tell her you care about this and other issues would be useful. Similarly, writing to the NRC Commissioners to let people know the public wants them to do a better job on safety issues like this one is important. To see which reactors do not comply with fire regulations people can check our Nuclear Power Information Tracker – People who live around those plants can contact local, state, and federal elected officials to let them know citizens are concerned and want something done, or can submit a letter to the editor of their local newspaper. Here is a link to a factsheet that gives some background on the issue:

      • richard

        Thanks for the prompt and helpful reply. The power tracker info and fact sheets are helpful.

        As a (Northern) California resident I have written Senator Boxer a number of times since the Fukushima accidents in March 2011 to express my wife’s and my concerns about the NRC’s laxity and to support her efforts to get the agency to act more responsibly in regards to fire safety, evacuation procedures, storage of nuclear waste, etc.

        I have also written Senator Feinstein who has shown a lot of concern about leaking pipes at San Onofre. PG&E, which runs the plant there, has been ‘reassuring’ but actually not taken enough concrete action to resolve these problems.

        I will continue to contact both Senators when the time is right, etc. I find out about these things via my reading of the NY Times. But it would help if you noted via this blog when committee meetings or other relevant things are going on. That would assist me, and hopefully other UCS members, to write the Senators about these issues.

        Any suggestions about who, how to contact the NRC would also be welcome. Perhaps a post on the mechanics and/or logistics of doing this would be helpful?

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  • The whole thing makes me crazy! : ) The ongoing BRC eoffrt is just one big stall tactic!!! Otherwise, the BRC members would have been permitted to include the Yucca Mountain Repository in their evaluation. I also do not buy into the allegation that the people of Nevada do not want the repository. I know Nye County wants it!!! My home is in Las Vegas. Except for the vocal minority that appeared at NRC-DOE public meetings on the YMR, the people I talked to while out and about were generally indifferent to the YMR and usually only knew the misinformation that the Reid media machine pumped out to the masses. I can only hope that the 2012 elections will change the power structure and unseat Harry Reid as the Senate Majority Leader so the project can move forward. I’m not saying the NWPA is fine as is; there needs to be modifications made to the NWPA to provide direct access to the NWF (eliminate the appropriations roadblock) and to permit reprocessing, but that can be worked out while the repository which will be needed no matter what we do going forward is prepared for use.What really disturbs me is that the entire situation is corrupt!!! Dirty Harry We lost the War Reid planted Jaczko on the Commission (after holding up ~100 Bush appointees until Bush caved) and then pushed for him to be the Chairman of the NRC under Obama SPECIFICALLY so he could derail the NRC Review of the YMP License Application from the inside. In addition, he got Steven Chu to flip-flop his position on the YMP (after signing with the other National Lab Leads that the YMR was the path to pursue) in order to gain appointment to the Secretary of Energy job ( So much for Sound Science ). Further, the sitting NRC Commissioners all had to agree not to challenge DOE’s pulling of the License Application during their confirmation hearings in order to be confirmed. All of these players and obstructionists are in violation of the LAW!!! Reid, Waxman, Jaczko, Chu, Berkley, Heller ALL need to be thrown out of their jobs… I’d even go further and have them arrested for violating FEDERAL LAW. How I’d love to be King for a day