Amid the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor, the threat that earthquakes and tsunamis pose to nuclear safety is drawing lots of attention. But many experts say that a much more pressing concern, and a much more likely source of a domestic disaster, is fire.
As the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News reports, fires break out an average of about 10 times a year at U.S. nuclear power plants.
In a little-publicized incident at South Carolina’s H.B. Robinson nuclear plant last year, two fires that erupted in a single day cut the power to half of the facility, leaving the cooling system without enough juice to keep the reactors from heating up.
The South Carolina fires, and dozens more like it in recent years at the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants, conceivably could spark a chain reaction leading to a meltdown like the one that crippled Fukushima in March.
Some industry experts say that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s efforts to address the fire threat have been woeful and dispute the agency’s contention that the lack of a catastrophic fire means it is doing its job. “The agency takes full credit for the grace of God,” George Mulley, a former chief investigator at the NRC’s Office of Inspector General, told ProPublica.
The investigative news organization said that Alabama’s Browns Ferry plant, where a devastating blaze 36 years ago prompted the NRC to adopt new rules, still doesn’t comply with fire-safety requirements. On Tuesday, the agency issued a rare “red” finding against the facility — which has “high safety significance” — based on a valve problem in a heat removal system.
The issue seems to reflect the entrenched problem of regulatory weakness against a big industry with a great deal of pull on Capitol Hill. A voluntary safety program was established after the NRC failed in its bid nine years ago to make compliance with fire safety regulations mandatory. According to Mulley, the agency didn’t fight for the mandatory measures because commissioners “don’t want to cost the industry money.”
What’s more, only two of the 50 nuclear facilities participating in the voluntary program have come up with customized fire plans and overhauls, while the others are permitted by the NRC to continue with temporary fixes.
“They are not effective measures,” David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists and former NRC official, told ProPublica. “You can limp by, but you can’t rely on them.”
the NRC doesn’t even maintain a record of the fire hazards it has detected. Instead, the plant’s operators are responsible for maintaining the list — raising the possibility that inspectors would be left in the dark if a list is incomplete.