Last week marked the 10th anniversary of a federal reactor fire safety standard, but it’s doubtful anyone at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) broke out the Champagne. That’s because 35 reactors — more than a third of the U.S. fleet — still don’t fully comply with it.
That’s not a trivial matter. The NRC itself estimates that fire represents as big a risk for a reactor meltdown as all other potential threats combined, and since 1995 there were more than 150 nuclear plant fires. Regardless, instead of issuing violation notices or shutting down plants until they comply, the agency has spent the last three decades granting extension after extension, and pushed the final deadline for compliance to 2018.
Negin doubts that the 2018 guideline will be met with significant impact on public safety:
If past is prologue, that cutoff date will likely slip, too. In the meantime, the agency’s lax enforcement threatens the safety of tens of millions of Americans who live within 50 miles of a noncompliant reactor.
Negin also has concerned about the way in which nuclear plants have been getting around the standards:
Beginning in the early 1990s, studies revealed that some types of material used for electric cable insulation, called fire wraps, did not meet the 1980 standard’s requirement to withstand a fire lasting as long as three hours. To compensate, many plant owners began to use measures — particularly what the industry calls “manual actions” — that the NRC had not approved or authorized. For example, if a fire damaged primary and backup system cables, the plant would dispatch workers to manually turn on pumps, close valves, or take whatever steps necessary to control the situation. NRC regulations permit manual actions, but only when they have been formally reviewed and approved on a case-by-case basis.
In 2000, NRC fire inspectors discovered that plant operators were routinely using unapproved manual actions, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the agency to determine whether the plants were operating safely. The agency then began to crack down on the practice, but plant owners threatened to submit hundreds, if not thousands, of exemption requests, which would have buried the agency in paperwork.
Under the threat of scads of exemption requests, the NRC gave plant owners another option for compliance, computer modeling:
To avoid bureaucratic gridlock, the NRC established a new standard in 2004 that gave plant owners the option of managing fire hazards through computer modeling. Developed by the National Fire Protection Association, the revised standard, called the NFPA 805 regulation, “seeks the same outcome as the 1980 standard,” explained Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “But it allows a plant to do it by calculating fire timing. How long will it take to put out a fire? How long can cables last in a fire? How long would it take for a fire department to get to the site?”
In addition to allowing the use of computer modeling, the NRC also gave another administrative waiver to full compliance:
Remarkably, the agency decided to allow the plant owners that pledged to meet the revised fire standard to continue to use unauthorized manual actions. “In other words,” Lochbaum pointed out in a recent blog, “the NRC is using unapproved manual actions as a substitute for the unapproved manual actions that prompted the transition to NFPA 805. The NRC cranked the gall-meter up to at least 11 with this one.”
Negin cites a GAO study to point out yet another variance plant operators are using:
A 2012 GAO investigation concluded this seat-of-the pants freelancing could compromise plant safety. According to the report:
… some plant operators had used temporary measures that that they could take without prior approval to compensate for equipment that needs to be repaired or replaced (compensatory measures) for an extended period of time rather than conducting needed maintenance, a practice that could degrade nuclear fire safety. For example, some plants had adopted fire watches, in which teams of plant employees are either posted continuously in a single location in a plant or rove throughout the plant to detect signs of fires. We reported that, at one nuclear power plant we visited, plant operators used fire watches for more than five years instead of replacing faulty seals to cover openings in structural barriers.
And, according to the GAO investigation, these problems are compounding by poor record-keeping by the NRC:
Perhaps more important, the GAO found that the NRC does not maintain a centralized database to track manual actions, so there is no way for the agency to assess the extent of the practice or the risks it might pose.
Negin gives this overall assessment of compliance with fire safety standards:
The NRC’s scorecard today? There are currently 100 operating reactors. Owners of 46 of those reactors notified the NRC they plan to comply with the 2004 fire standard in lieu of the 1980 standard. To date, however, only 11 of the 46 reactors have completed all the required steps to achieve compliance, according to the NRC. In the meantime, plant operators are still relying on manual actions to manage fire risk.