For Immediate Release
Feds Duck Nagging Problems with #1 Safety Rule at U.S. Nuclear Plants
Public officials, watchdogs seek investigation after NRC ignores fire experts’ warnings about risks at operating plants; modeling failure impacts new reactors too
DURHAM, NC - Officials from five local governments near the Shearon Harris nuclear plant, and
three watchdog groups, asked for a federal investigation into possible
wrongdoing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission involving the top safety
issue at the nation’s reactors.
They say the NRC is ignoring its own safety regulations – and criticisms
by numerous fire science experts – while attempting to bring scores of nuclear
plants into compliance after over two decades of regulatory failure.
Beyond Nuclear, NC WARN and The
Union of Concerned Scientists today filed a legal motion with the NRC’s Office
of Inspector General. They urged
the OIG to issue an expedited “show cause” order directing NRC Chairman Gregory
Jaczko to explain why his agency has allowed pilot programs by Progress Energy
and Duke Energy to use risk calculations that failed, under required testing, to
predict the ignition and spread of electrical fires. The NRC is scheduled to grant license
amendments to the Harris and Oconee nuclear
plants very soon, which would bless them as finally achieving compliance.
risk calculations, or fire “modeling,” are the scientific basis for a new
regulatory plan intended to end years of controversy over the NRC's lack of
enforcement. The watchdog groups
today sent the OIG extensive evidence that two international fire science
panels, an industry trade association, a national testing lab and the NRC itself
have found serious limitations that essentially render the models unreliable for
looks more like smoke and mirrors than real fire safety," said David Lochbaum, director of the
nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, during a press
teleconference today. He said the
NRC seems so focused on scheduling that they’re willing to ignore key safety
issues. "The NRC received very critical comments
from independent fire scientists, but rather than fixing those serious problems,
the agency essentially ignored them in order to approve the pilot projects and
move ahead with new plants. The NRC is letting the U.S. public
Fire is ranked by the NRC as the
leading safety factor – 50 percent of overall risk – for a U.S. reactor
meltdown. Current regulations were
developed in 1980 following a near-disaster caused by fire at the Browns Ferry
plant in Alabama.
But most plant owners have never met those regulations, so the NRC
recently allowed them to attempt compliance with the fire modeling scheme.
The watchdogs say the NRC is
ignoring the modeling problems apparently in order to provide the illusion that
fire safety problems are resolved.
The new “risk-informed” regulatory plan is optional for all existing
plants and for new ones that might be built. Electric cables are of particular
concern because they, themselves, are leading fire hazards, and because they are
essential so operators can
shut down and cool the reactor
following an accident or sabotage.
The groups also say the new risk-based fire strategy is fundamentally flawed
because it explicitly ignores security threats.
“No one can accurately predict the level
of fire risk derived from an attack on a nuclear power
plant,” said Paul
Gunter, Director of Reactor Oversight Project for the Takoma Park, Maryland based anti-nuclear group, Beyond
Nuclear. “There is no reliable way to evaluate fire
risks from sabotage because of the lack of data, the limited range of scenarios
considered, and large uncertainties about human performance,” he said.
“This is why we continue to call for stringent enforcement of physical fire
protection features as included in the long-standing regulations.”
Gunter and NC WARN director Jim
Warren met privately with NRC Chairman Jaczko in March. But the agency head dismissed the firmly
worded concerns of the fire science experts. He also would not explain why NRC has
directed the pilot plants to use fire models that have not been “verified and
validated” as required by regulations.
Nor would he explain why the agency intends to grant license amendments
even though the NRC has begun a three-year retesting of fire models that failed
in earlier laboratory experiments.
Mayor Randy Voller of Pittsboro,
a Harris plant neighbor, explained why he wants the OIG investigation: “Local officials must speak out for public
protection by looking forward – instead of reacting after disasters. The Gulf oil tragedy shows how
catastrophe can strike even after assurances that industrial operations are
perfectly safe – and it’s showing the intensity of consequences when such
assurances prove wrong.”
The mayor, along with
representatives from governing bodies in Chatham County, Orange County
and the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, sent
a letter requesting the OIG investigation.
They also have asked U.S. Rep. David Price to urge NRC Chairman Jaczko to
resolve the controversy before issuing any license amendments.
Price, whose district includes
the Harris plant, was instrumental in gaining earlier investigations of the fire
protection saga by the OIG and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In 2008 both agencies confirmed the
complaints by these same nuclear watchdogs, reporting extensive shortcomings
with NRC enforcement stretching back two decades. The OIG and Congress have authority to
seek prosecution if any individual causes the neglect of regulations designed to
protect public safety. The watchdog
groups also plan to ask an NRC science panel, the Advisory Committee on Reactor
Safeguards, to directly investigate the fire modeling issue.
Progress Energy reports having
spent over $10 million on upgrades and studies for the new regulatory
program. The groups said the
Raleigh-based power giant delayed compliance with the existing regulations year
after year because that would have cost much more.
Jim Warren, director of NC WARN,
pointed to President Obama’s recent admonishment that coal mine safety
regulations “are riddled with
loopholes.” Warren called on Obama to
apply the same standard to the NRC: “The nuclear industry has been gaming the
NRC for decades because of persistent pressure to cut costs. If the Obama NRC allows this travesty to
continue, the U.S. could see more catastrophes that
should have been prevented.”