NRC Denies Oconee Fire Reg Extension, But What Will It Do Now?

January 24, 2013
David Wright
Former contributor

Last Tuesday, January 15, the NRC released its decision not to accept Duke Energy’s request for an extension to comply with fire regulations at its Oconee reactors, which I discussed in an earlier post.

That was the right decision, and we were glad to see it. Moreover, the written decision makes clear the NRC is saying that the Oconee reactors do not comply with either the NRC’s 1980 or 2004 fire safety regulations. That has been true for years, but this makes it official.

So the key question is: What will the NRC do about it?

The two leading options for the NRC seem to be (1) to require Duke to shut down the Oconee reactors until they meet the regulations, if the NRC thinks they are too dangerous to continue to operate; or (2) to impose a fine on the reactors for each day they are operating out of compliance. The NRC can impose fines of up to $140,000 per day per violation, which comes out to more than $12 million per month for the three reactors. But in this case the NRC should explain why it believes it is safe for the reactors to continue to operate if they are out of compliance.

We expect the NRC to announce its next step in the coming weeks.

We don’t know the full story behind the NRC’s denial. The letter announcing the denial said that after an evaluation the NRC staff concluded that “the licensee was provided an appropriate period of time to implement the plant changes they were required to complete, and the licensee has failed to complete those plant changes.”

Here’s a brief history. In 2005 Duke announced that it would take the steps necessary to bring the Oconee reactors into compliance with the 2004 fire regulations, since they did not comply with the 1980 regulations. In 2008 Duke submitted a partial plan for coming into compliance. In its decision the NRC writes that “After numerous supplements and submission of a totally revised application in April 2010, the staff approved the requested license amendment regarding transition to [the 2004 regulations] on December 29, 2010.” The license amendments “specified that most of the plant modifications … had to be completed by January 1, 2013.”

In July 2012 Duke applied for an extension to December 31, 2014 for implementing the measures needed for compliance. However, during a phone call on November 27, 2012, Duke told NRC staff that it had encountered further delays so that the first phase of these measures would be complete by December 31, 2013, but full implementation of the measures would be delayed until December 31, 2015. The NRC denied these extension requests.

Senator Barbara Boxer, Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has given attention to the fire safety issue in past hearings and appears intent on pushing the NRC to meet its obligations. She and Congressman Edward J. Markey requested the U.S. Government Accountability Office examine the NRC’s oversight of reactors transitioning to the 2004 regulations.