WASHINGTON — Nuclear watchdog groups say that an internal report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on fire safety at nuclear plants shows that regulators don't have enough information to know whether its new fire rules will ensure safety.
The NRC, in response, said the new fire plan was the product of years of extensive research, would improve safety and was ready to use.
The first plant approved to use the new regulations is Progress Energy's Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina.
Safety and cost are key issues that must be addressed as utilities decide whether to move ahead with a new round of nuclear plant construction. Fire safety at complex nuclear plants is crucial because fire is a large factor in the risk of a meltdown.
The NRC revised its fire safety rules for commercial reactors after a fire in 1975 at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama threatened the plant's ability to shut down. The nation's nuclear plants have many different designs, and they had difficulty meeting the requirements for fire barriers and other elements of the existing fire protection plan.
The new plan, which is voluntary, uses modeling and an evaluation of the probable risks of fire that are tailored to the characteristics of individual plants. A plant's operator must perform engineering analyses and show that its fire protection systems will meet safety standards.
However, Jim Warren of the watchdog group NC WARN said that experts had warned about problems with the new risk-based system. He said the new regulations were weaker than the watchdogs wanted, and charged that the NRC was trying to sweep problems under the rug.
He called it another case of regulators cutting corners to accommodate industry's needs, just as the now-renamed and revamped Minerals and Management Service did for the oil and gas industry before the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"They're trying to go ahead with it anyway because they're under pressure to allow the use of this new scheme in new reactors," Warren said. His group focuses on climate and energy issues, and it supports the growth of solar and wind power and improved energy efficiency.
The NRC on July 1 approved the adoption of the new fire-protection standard at the Harris nuclear plant, which is 20 miles southwest of Raleigh.
Plant spokeswoman Julia Milstead said that when modifications were completed as agreed by the end of the year, "we're going to have one of the most sophisticated fire-protection systems in the country."
The company spent about $30 million on 44 modifications to the plant for the new fire system.
At the time the approval was announced, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in a statement that current fire-protection regulations provided adequate protection but that the new risk-based standard, known as NFPA 805, improved fire safety.
"The agency has worked with recognized experts to incorporate an updated understanding of fire risks into our regulations through NFPA 805," Jaczko said.
Duke's Oconee plant in South Carolina is in a pilot project to move to the new program. The NRC says 47 other reactors are expected to adopt the voluntary system. That would mean that nearly half the nation's 104 reactors would use it.
The agency also said the new standard would reduce the plants' regulatory burden because they wouldn't need as many license exemptions and amendments.
David Lochbaum, a former nuclear engineer who directs a nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said an NRC memo dated June 14, two weeks before the Harris plant approval, showed that there were still many unanswered questions about fire safety that came up as the agency developed the new regulations.
Lochbaum said the NRC was saying nonetheless that the fire prevention plan at Harris was adequate.
"Once these questions are answered that may be the case, but it's somewhat guessing to reach that conclusion before you do all the research to get the answers," he said. "It's basically like taking a test and there's no answer key."
Lochbaum found the memo in the NRC's electronic library on its public website.
It was written by Alexander Klein, the chief of the fire protection branch of the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, to his boss, Mark Cunningham, the director of the office's Division of Risk Assessment.
The memo is an annual update that lists areas of fire protection that require additional research. Several of the areas it says need better understanding are smoke damage to control circuits, the rate that flames would spread on electrical cables and the effectiveness of a type of fire suppressant.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the memo showed nothing wrong.
"The NRC does not sit on its laurels when it comes to safety issues," he said. "We continue to examine those issues for which more information can be gathered. So to suggest that because we continue to examine an issue means we don't have the answer, that's not correct."
The National Fire Protection Association put the new risk-based standard together after an analysis of fire risks that was "more than sufficient," Burnell said.
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