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.