On June 16, the commission charged with investigating the events of September 11 announced that Al Qaeda's early attack plans had included "unidentified nuclear power plants." You might think the Bush Administration would respond by doing all it could to prevent a terrorist-triggered disaster at these plants.
Think again. The Bush Administration is actually relaxing the fire safeguards there.
Instead of insisting that the plants have heat-protected mechanical systems in place that will shut down reactors automatically in case of fire, which is the current standard, the Bush Administration would actually let the power companies rely on workers to run through the plants and try to turn off the reactors by hand while parts of the facilities are engulfed in flames.
"The result could be catastrophic," says a March 3 letter from Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), and Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), to Nils J. Diaz, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). "This would assign reactor personnel the duty of rushing directly to the shutdown equipment located throughout the reactor complex to shut down the reactors manually, and would potentially take place in station areas affected by smoke, fire, and radiation and possibly under attack by terrorists."
Inside the NRC, the idea of people dodging flames and possibly high radiation areas to try to avert a meltown has raised some eyebrows. In a September 2003 meeting, one member of a panel on reactor fire safety repeatedly pointed out that relying on humans to do work in dangerous conditions and under stress was asking for trouble. It's difficult to prepare operators, said Dana Powers, a member of the Fire Protection Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. "How do you do that?" he asked. "How do you simulate smoke, light, fire, ringing bells, fire engines, crazy people running around?"
So why is the NRC proposing to relax the fire safety standard? Amazingly, because many nuclear power plants have not been abiding by current regulations to put up proven fire barriers. Rather than demanding better fire safeguards or insisting that nuclear power companies at least abide by the current ones, the NRC wants to let them off the hook. It's as if car drivers were regularly going 90 mph, so the government raised the speed limit to 90.
"It appears that after discovering that many reactor licensees were out of compliance with the automatic safe-shutdown fire regulations, the commission has decided to gut these regulations rather than force nuclear power plant operators to comply with them," says the Markey and Dingell letter. The NRC made its decision, according to Markey, "at the behest of the nuclear industry."
Current regulations require plants to maintain two sets of electrical circuitry that enable the reactor to shut down automatically in an emergency. These cables either must be encased in proven fire-retardant materials or must be separated by a distance of 20 feet with no combustible materials in between. That way, if one electrical system burns up, the plant can turn itself off, even if the fire is so destructive that no staff members are left to do that work.
The NRC introduced a proposed rule change on November 26, 2003, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It said that, instead of putting in fire barriers, nuclear plants could rely on personnel to turn the plant off by hand in the event of a fire that threatens the reactor. The rule change may go into effect as early as next spring.
The rulemaking started after the NRC met with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry group, which admitted that many of its members did not have the required safeguards in place. "NEI indicated that the use of unapproved operator manual actions in the event of a fire is pervasive throughout the industry," noted William D. Travers, then the NRC's executive director for operations, in describing the proposed rule to the commissioners. (Procedures for shutting down a reactor by hand are called "operator manual actions.")
Faced with resistance from industry, the NRC found itself in a predicament. "A concerted enforcement effort," wrote Travers, "creates a prospect of significant resource expenditure without clear safety benefits." He warned that the NRC could be flooded with requests for exemptions from the rules.
Fires are not uncommon at nuclear power plants. "Typical nuclear power plants will have three to four significant fires over their operating lifetime," says a 1990 NRC document. "Fires are a significant contributor to the overall core damage frequency."
Fire itself will not blow up a reactor, say critics and industry representatives alike. But if the electrical cabling burns and the pumps that cool the reactor core become disabled, the core could begin to overheat, and the reactor could melt down. Millions of people could then be exposed to radiation.
Shearon Harris nuclear power plant sits about twenty-two miles south of Raleigh, North Carolina, in one of the fastest growing population centers in the United States. So I give Progress Energy, the company that runs the plant, a call. "Fire protection is such a mundane issue," says Rick Kimble, manager of general communications for the company. And he suggests that I shouldn't worry about fires at nuclear reactors because the facilities, built of concrete and rebar, are unlikely to burn and are designed to shut down automatically. Nevertheless, he sets up a meeting with me at the plant's visitors center, a common field-trip destination for local school groups. He says I'll be able to see "images of the plant, basics of how the plant works, cutouts showing the amount of concrete and steel rebar." He even recommends a hotel. I tell him I will make a plane reservation now that I have a confirmed meeting with him.
But the following week, several days before I am scheduled to fly out, Kimble calls to say that our meeting is cancelled. No one from the plant will meet with me. And, unlike the school kids, I am not welcome at the Shearon Harris visitors center. Fire prevention, says Kimble, is an industry-wide issue. "We don't think we should be singled out," Kimble explains. Anyhow, he says, "there would not be a catastrophic fire in a nuclear plant." That's because nuclear fuel is not flammable. Even if there was a meltdown, it would be contained, says Kimble.
"That's a ludicrous statement," replies David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Browns Ferry was also made out of concrete and steel."
One day in 1975, some workers were checking a seal on the secondary containment building at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama. They accidentally started a fire. The fire "was in the insulating material around the cables. It was in a cable tray," says Craig Beasely, a communications specialist at the plant. The fire began in a part of the plant Beasely calls "the cable spreader room," which he defines as "the place where the cables come together." The fire lasted "about seven hours," says Beasely. Some of the cables that caught fire, he confirms, "did control some cooling" to the reactor core.
"Temperatures as high as 1500°F caused damage to more than 1600 cables routed in 117 conduits and twenty-six cable trays," says a draft report by the Sandia and Brookhaven Laboratories. "Of those, 628 cables were safety related, and their damage caused the loss of a significant number of plant safety systems."
A 1976 paper by the Union of Concerned Scientists was entitled "Browns Ferry: The Regulatory Failure." Observing that the fire rendered all safety equipment inoperative and that thick smoke, loss of control over the reactor, and "inadequate breathing apparatuses" interfered with the operators' attempts to save the plant, the paper sums up the event in these words: "TVA nuclear engineers stated privately to the authors that a potentially catastrophic radiation release from Browns Ferry was avoided by 'sheer luck.' "
Company protests to the contrary, Shearon Harris merits attention. The most recent NRC fire inspection describes more than 100 manual action shutdown procedures that, in case of fire, would send personnel out to turn off the plant and prevent a meltdown. "We've not seen any numbers higher than that," says Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for the D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
The NRC's 2002 Triennial Fire Inspection of Shearon Harris describes some of these operator manual actions. One, the NRC says, involves "excessive challenges to operators," including "exposure to smoke that would leak past the door and to the fire brigade who would be opening the door, entering the narrow [15 inches wide] energized electrical cabinet, and using a metal screwdriver inside the cabinet and seven feet above the floor with poor visibility and poor labeling. . . . Operators may not be able to start the auxiliary feedwater pump."
Jim Warren, executive director of the Durham-based NC WARN (North Carolina Waste Awareness Reduction Network), characterizes the procedure this way: "Get the step ladder and go up in the closet in the darkness, and hope you don't fry yourself."
The inspection noted that one operator "may be required to complete as many as thirty-nine manual actions." The inspection found nine fire safety violations altogether. In a March 2004 presentation the government made at an annual assessment meeting on the Shearon Harris reactor, the NRC described these "fire protection issues" as "potential significant findings."
Nevertheless, the NRC inspection did not come down hard on Shearon Harris. "The finding was of very low safety significance because of the low fire initiation frequency," it said. That is, the NRC doesn't think a fire is likely.
Kimble says the reactor has dealt with the violations. "We have made corrections, done everything that has been suggested by the NRC," he says. But Warren is not so sure. "Absent any evidence from Progress [Energy], either in person or documented, that they have corrected those problems, I'm left to assume that they're still there," he says.
Papers released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that some fire violations at Shearon Harris have gone on for years, either without correction or with corrections that the NRC later determined were inappropriate.
In April, the plant informed the NRC that the fire barriers were missing entirely from cables that power twenty-one valves used to control the flow of cooling water to the reactor core. The plant informed the NRC that it would take two years to fix the problem. The violations date back to 2002.
So I keep my plane ticket. I decide to get a look at the cooling tower and a feel for the evacuation zone, the ten-mile radius surrounding Shearon Harris.
I drive in a downpour, on an afternoon when tornadoes lift the roofs in nearby towns, to the hotel Kimble suggested.
The hotel sits in Apex, a town with the slogan "the peak of good living," though there are no mountains, or even hills, in sight.
Warren and I drive around the zone, seeking a view of the reactor. We pull over at Jordan Lake, where we get a glimpse of the tower, its feet in the trees and its head in the clouds. Aesthetically, it's a graceful structure, a triumph of modern design out in the woods. "That cooling tower is over 600-feet tall," says Warren.
Jordan Lake is a popular weekend destination for people in the Triangle region. Below the parking lot where we stand is a dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the inflow and outflow of water, says Francis Ferrell, a Corps engineer who wanders out to the parking lot to meet us. "We actually have a contingency plan" in case of a nuclear emergency, he says. "We're supposed to go out on the lake and tell people," obtain geiger counters after a rendezvous on Highway 64, and report back measurements. "I think our boss is trying to get that taken out of our job descriptions," he says. "That would be fine with me."
We drive to the other side of Shearon Harris to the front entrance, where we get out and walk on the road, stopping short of the "Private Property" signs. But the guards notice us, jump into their truck, and drive up to inform us that we can't stand there, that we need to cross the highway. The guards are armed. When Warren tells them I am a reporter, they tell me to call the PR office. Then they sit in their truck, watching, until we turn the car around and leave. "At least we know they're paying attention," says Warren.
A 2003 study put out by Orange County, North Carolina, which is near Shearon Harris, determined that "total evacuation [of the six-county region along the Interstate 40/85 corridor] would take 5.8 days, assuming that all interstate lanes would be directed for outbound traffic."
"I reconcile myself that I may lose everything," says Judy Hogan, a writer, teacher, and activist who lives in Moncure, just a few miles from the plant. "For a while, I was keeping my unpublished books on disks in the trunk of my car because that would be my biggest loss." Now that she owns a truck, she keeps the disks in a briefcase in her bedroom. In that room, Hogan also has a tone alert radio, which she says Progress Energy gave to her because she lives within five miles of the plant. The radio, she says, will sound an alarm for bad weather, as well as for nuclear emergencies.
In 2003, partly in response to anxieties about terrorism at nuclear power plants, the state of North Carolina made potassium iodide (KI) available to people living near nuclear reactors. Hogan went to the local school to get them. She digs out her foil-wrapped pills (each person gets two) from her purse.
Two information sheets accompany the pills. One of these describes potassium iodide as "an over-the-counter medication that can protect one part of the body – the thyroid – if a person is exposed to radioactive iodine released during a nuclear power plant emergency." The sheet says to take one tablet per twenty-four hour period, and it adds an admonitory note: "Remember . . . taking KI is not a substitute for evacuation. Leave the area immediately if you are instructed to do so. Do not take KI unless public health officials tell you to take it."
The other sheet is entitled, "Frequently Asked Questions About a Radioactive Emergency." It begins, "Radiation is a form of energy that is present all around us. Different types of radiation exist, some of which have more energy than others."
Kimble is right. Fire safety is an industry-wide issue. And Shearon Harris is not the only plant with a long list of violations.
For instance, in Hutchinson Island in Florida, a March 2003 Fire Protection Baseline Inspection of the St. Lucie Power Station found that "many local manual operator actions were used in place of the required physical protection of cables for equipment relied on for SSD [safe shutdown] during a fire, without obtaining NRC approval for these deviations from the approved fire protection program. This condition applied to all areas that were inspected."
Rachel Scott, nuclear communications manager for Florida Power and Light, says that this inspection "pointed up an industry-wide" practice, where reactors "have been implementing manual actions" against NRC regulations. So, says Scott, the NRC decided "to allow the licensees to substitute manual actions, as long as the manual actions were feasible." The NRC, says Scott, "did determine that the manual actions" at St. Lucie Station "were feasible," meaning "that they could serve safe shutdown." Scott says the plant has not put in fire barriers or separated the cables, but is instead waiting for the new regulation to take effect.
At another Florida reactor, this one in Citrus County, a Triennial Fire Protection Baseline Inspection in July 2002 discovered, according to a "Briefing Summary," that not only did the Crystal River plant use "a significant number of local manual actions" instead of automatic shutdown, but that the plant's fire plan neglected to give adequate consideration to some of the practical difficulties of shutting a nuclear power plant down by hand. The omissions included, in the NRC's words:
* Complexity of the new local manual actions.
* The number of manual actions and time available for completion.
* Availability of instruments to detect system/component mal-operations.
* Human performance under high stress.
* Effects of products of combustion on operator performance.
* Available manpower, timing, and feasibility of local manual actions.
Mac Harris, communications supervisor for the Crystal River site, which is run by Progress Energy, says that the above problems eventually received a green, non-cited violation. "Green is considered very low safety significance," he says. The Crystal River Plant, he says, "dealt with the identified issues" by making "some revisions in the fire protection plan," a process it completed in May.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service obtained these records, and those from Shearon Harris, through a Freedom of Information Act request. The records of fire safety violations are still coming in, says Gunter. "I'm told that when we're done, the stack will be ten feet tall," he says. "That's how widespread the noncompliances are."
A March press release by Markey's office provided "a partial list of reactors that are out of compliance with NRC fire protection regulations." Here are the reactors:
Arizona: Palo Verde Units 1,2,3
Arkansas: Arkansas Nuclear One Units 1,2
California: Diablo Canyon Units 1,2
Florida: Crystal River, St. Lucie, Turkey Point 3,4
Louisiana: River Bend
Mississippi: Grand Gulf
Nebraska: Fort Calhoun
New Jersey: Oyster Creek
North Carolina: Shearon Harris 1, McGuire Units 1,2
Pennsylvania: Beaver Valley 2
Tennessee: Sequoyah Units 1,2, Watts Bar
Texas: Comanche Peak 1,2
At Davis-Besse, the Ohio nuclear reactor with a history of safety troubles that sits twenty-five miles from Toledo, fire protection is a problem.
Phil Qualls, an NRC senior fire protection engineer, sent an e-mail to Dennis Kubicki, a former colleague who had worked on a report on safety at Davis-Besse. Qualls said he went over that 1991 report, and that it contains "some pretty outrageous stuff. Things like . . . complete manual actions" instead of the fire barriers required by law, "and a variety of fire protection issues." He warns Kubicki, "your name is on this document. The s___could hit the fan hard and you may hear questions about it (or the s___ may be soft and you never hear about it, too)."
The report, which identifies Kubicki as a "principal contributor," declares numerous fire issues at Davis-Besse "acceptable." For instance, previous safety inspectors had expressed concern that a manual action might cause reactor cooling problems because of delays in getting the equipment to work. The report determines that these problems "are not safety significant as long as no unrecoverable plant condition will occur." It defines "unrecoverable plant condition" as "the loss of any shutdown function(s) for such a duration as to ultimately cause the reactor coolant level to fall below the top of the reactor core and lead to a subsequent breach of the fuel cladding." In other words, as long as the reactor does not reach a point where it threatens to melt down, no problem.
"It's a big caveat to say, 'as long as no unrecoverable plant condition will occur,' " says Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "How do they know?"
Gunter blames the NRC for what he says is a dangerous regulatory change. The government agency, he says, is "more interested in protecting the financial interest of the industry than in protecting those electrical cables."
For its part, the NRC says it is doing all it can to keep the reactors safe. "The prescriptive rules" requiring physical fire barriers "didn't allow for flexibility," says John Hannon, NRC branch chief in the office of nuclear reactor regulation – the part of the NRC that is responsible for fire protection programs. "The rules were so inflexible they [the plants] sometimes had trouble meeting them." So, he says, even from the day the rules were written, the NRC gave out exemptions "for alternative means of shutting the plant down that were safe and reliable. Many of these were operator manual actions."
Then, in the 1990s, as the NRC inspected plants to make sure they had adequate fire protections, the commission discovered "a lot of plants were using manual actions and had not come to us for exemptions," Hannon says. So the NRC decided it was "prudent for us to initiate a rule making for that, to codify acceptance criteria to make it clear" what is acceptable.
The NRC claims that all of this can be done safely. "We're seeking the health and safety of the public," says Hannon. "We don't want a plant damage event to occur that would cause a radioactive release." The NRC, he says, takes "fires very seriously." And he says the new rule will be an improvement on the status quo. "If we leave it the way it is now, we have plants out there that wouldn't meet the criteria," he says.
"Rather than bring the industry into conformance with the code, the NRC brought the code into conformance with the industry," says Gunter.
Jerry Brown worked as a consultant to the nuclear industry for twenty-two years, until 1998. His specialty was fire and radiation penetration seals, critical safety components to nuclear reactors.
To exchange old rules "for new regulations to say that we don't need these redundant shutdown systems is criminal," he says. "You could have a runaway reactor with no ability to shut it down." Brown blames the NRC, which he says has a history of treating "fire safety in such a negligent way."
Brown, who says he is "absolutely" concerned about terrorism in connection with fires at a nuclear plant, gives a grim warning. "A nuclear power plant can kill a million people," he says. "There are more fire barriers in a nursing home than in a nuclear power plant. That doesn't make sense to me."