Only two U.S. nuclear sites are in compliance with federal fire regulations. How confident can we be that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has things firmly in hand?
On an ironically clear and placid day in August 2007, a three story tall cooling tower at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant collapsed, goring a massive hole in the center of the structure and spewing asbestos, rotting wood, plastic panels, and thousands of gallons of water onto the bank of the Connecticut river. It later emerged that several employees had expressed concerns about the tower, and that, in the days before the collapse, others heard odd noises from within the structure.
Plant administrators refused to allow reporters onto the property for three days. They insisted the tower was of minimal import, and continued running the reactor.
Nine days after the collapse, Yankee was forced to make a full emergency shut down – known as a SCRAM at boiling water reactors, like those at Japan’s crippled Fukushima plant and Vermont’s Yankee - after a critical reactor valve failed. The proper lubrication had been neglected.
“Our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.”
—former NRC commissioner
The plant’s response mirrored its reaction to a transformer fire, in 2004. In June of that year, as a stream of dense, chalky smoke billowed from the compound, the governor’s office became irate with the plant for not providing sufficient information, according to an official who worked for the state at the time. A month later, the plant was cited by the NRC for “Failure to make timely notification of status upon declaration of unusual event.”
The narrative seems more befitting a Soviet-era republic than modern New England, but strings of jarring failures are what many in southern Vermont, and those across the river in neighboring New Hampshire, have come to expect from Yankee.
In April 2004, the plant announced that two fuel rods were unaccounted for, only to find them three months later in the spent fuel storage pool. In August 2006, materials leaving the plant were four times more radioactive than federal limits permit. In 2008, radiation exposure forced the evacuation of 25 employees after a fan was placed too close to the top of the reactor vessel. In May 2008, a crane dropped a 360,000-pound spent fuel cask four inches onto a concrete floor, and, in August 2009, administrators admitted that they had failed to monitor casks for radiation leaks since they had been installed the previous June. In January 2009, the plant sprung two radioactive leaks, one in a “safety sensitive area.” The next month, administrators excavated 135,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil from the plant. And in September 2008, after repairs to the collapsed cooling tower were completed, concerns about further possible rot and corrosion at the plant emerged. It also became clear that Entergy, the New Orleans based corporation that runs Yankee (as well as New York’s Indian Point plant, and eight other nuclear sites), had failed to make renovations to the two cooling tower cells that are critical for an emergency shut down.
The ongoing failures at Japan’s Fukushima plant have put new emphasis on concerns about nuclear safety here in the United States. And on the heels of recent massive regulatory failures that left our financial markets in chaos and the Gulf of Mexico blackened, one wonders whether American nuclear regulation, handled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in Rockville, MD, is comparably insufficient.
An NRC Investigator General report from 2002, I found, showed that only 53 percent of the employees at NRC felt it was “safe to speak up in the NRC,’ and less than half -- 48 percent -- felt “that management actually trusts the judgment of employees at their level in the organization.”
A 2006 report observed: “Significant reservations still exist about the Differing Professional Opinions (DPO) program. Some employees feel comfortable raising an issue and going through the DPO process. However, a number of employees do not feel comfortable doing so, out of fear of retaliation.”
One former NRC commissioner, speaking on background last June, told me: “our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.”
According to John Grobe, the Associate Director for Engineering and Safety Systems at NRC, “Approximately one-half of the core damage risk at operating reactors results from accident sequences that initiate with fire events.”
Nonetheless, only two U.S. nuclear sites are in compliance with federal fire regulations; all others continue to operate with exemptions, a stopgap system that was implemented more than thirty years ago and was never intended as a permanent solution.
At a public meeting in July 2008, NRC commissioner Gregory Jaczko, whom President Obama has since appointed to chair the commission, noted: “[these are] simple, straightforward regulations and I don’t think there is one plant right now that is in compliance with those regulations.” He continued, “That's simply unacceptable for a regulator.”
The problem, he pointed out, is a longstanding one: “We have never really been able to have a clear set of criteria that we enforce as a regulatory body in fire protection. To this day, I do not think we do.”
His assessment remains accurate.
He outlined a key piece of NRC Title 10 fire regulations Appendix R, set fourth by the NRC in 1980, dealing with the fire protections for reactor control cables.
“You have to have a three hour fire barrier,” around cables connecting control rooms to reactors, “you have to have an hour [barrier] with fire suppression, or you have to have 20 feet of separation. And if all of those fail, you have to have an alternate shut down capability.”
Plants today, rather than relying on automated fire detection and suppression systems, are using a patchwork of manual actions, that is actions by plant workers outside of control rooms to enact dozens of shutdown procedures, in the event of a serious fire: “The reality is that we have licensees that are using unapproved operator manual actions,” Jackzo said in 2008. The NRC declined to make the chairman available to discuss the matter.
Reactors rely on two sets of control cabling, a primary and a backup. Close to a thousand miles of such cables run through plants. The problem is that reactor designs do not physically separate the two sets of lines, and a disaster that damages one will likely affect the redundant system, as well.
Nuclear supporters hold that plants cannot afford to meet the regulations that Jaczko outlined. Voices within the industry have wisely refrained from arguing this explicitly, and prefer to attack the regulations as overkill that fail to identify and address genuine problem areas. As one industry advocate put it, the regulations make “no distinction between a room with a tank of diesel and a room that’s bare concrete and steel.”
It’s worth noting that three major nuclear providers, Exelon, Duke Energy, and Entergy, had profits of, respectively, $2.56 billion, $1.32 billion, and $1.27 billion, in 2010.
Rather than comply with regulations, plants have largely earned their exemptions by having workers walk plant floors on “fire watches.” Hotels without smoke detectors and sprinklers would be unimaginable in the America; reactors without them are a given.
Fires are endemic to nuclear power. From 1995 to 2007, there were 125 at 54 of the nation’s 65 nuclear plants, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study. Thirteen of those were categorized as posing an “actual or potential substantial degradation of unit safety.”
None, the report stressed, since 1975, have threatened a plant’s capacity to safely power down, which is how a meltdown is most likely to begin. That fire, which led to regulations that Jaczko outlined, was at the Brown’s Ferry plant, in Alabama. It began when a technician, using a candle to search for air leaks in the reactor, inadvertently ignited the flammable cabling connecting the reactor to its control room. Operators fought the electric fire with water, further fueling the flames.
The NRC, at the industry’s urging, is moving gradually towards a “risk-based assessment system,” that would tailor regulation to the needs of individual sites. “The concern with the risk-based approached,” says David Lochbaum of the Union of Concern Scientists, “is that regulation is no longer black and white; matters become squishy and open to interpretation. And it’s tough for the NRC because there’s no longer a right answer.” Lochbaum worked in nuclear power plants for 17 years and testified in the Senate earlier this week.
Wednesday, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the risk-based system, which is known as NFPA 805 and was written by the National Fire Protection Agency, would allow “you take into account actual conditions, you’re applying your resources where there’s the greatest demonstrated risks.”
I inquired who creates the site-specific plans. “The plant itself draws it up," Burnell replied, “and the NRC checks that analysis to ensure that it follows the basic principles of NPFA 805.”
There are two sites currently engaged in risk-based pilot programs, which began in 2008. One of the two, the Shearon Harris plant in North Carolina, has already come under scrutiny for its self-assessment. Watchdog groups are awaiting the release of an NRC inspector general’s investigation over concerns about the efficacy of computer modeling used to predict fire potential fires.
In June of 2010, just a month before NRC approved Shearon Harris plant’s application to be regulated by risk based NAFPA 805 rather than Appendix R, Alexander Klein, the chief of the fire protection branch at office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, a wing of NRC, wrote a memo outlining lasting concerns.
The memo suggests that fire modeling, referred to as PRA for probability risk assessment, needed to be improved in a number of ways.
“Internal stakeholders identified the need for a better understanding of flame spread rates for fires in electrical cables,” he noted.
It also noted that the model needed to better understand heat release from fires in electrical cabinets; to better understand smoke damage to control circuits; and a better understanding of the behavior of gaseous fire suppressants, like carbon dioxide.
The manual for NRC inspectors, according to the memo, “does not provide sufficient guidance to inspectors” regarding: “findings involving control room evacuation,” nor “findings related to fire brigade performance deficiencies.”
Klein was not available for comment.
For most, there is a visceral reaction to the white, hyperboloid cooling towers that flank many plants; they look to belong to another era, and are, in a perverse sense, exploding upward and out, offering the mind the visual cue for fears that are perhaps instinctual.
Those within the industry hold that they have been unduly scrutinized for the past forty years, and have, by and large, measured up. There has not been a single fatality from the operation of commercial nuclear plants in the US.
The scrutiny, though, is entirely justified, and the gas, oil, and coal industries would be well served to endure comparably consistent and thorough oversight. NRC representatives are stationed at plants full time and can order reactors powered down at any moment.
If one is serious about tackling the challenge of climate change and the degradation of the plant, nuclear power remains the foundation of a tenable path forward.
There is a good deal more that can be done in regards to safety. Fukushima’s slow melt will guarantee new geological assessments, and, in terms of both counterterrorism and fire safety, there are further steps that can and must be taken. There is little question that Los Angeles and New York, in the case of severe disasters, would be incapable of large-scale evacuations. The problem of spent nuclear fuel, too, must be addressed, whether through reprocessing or securing a national repository. Many casks now lie vulnerable to attack, flooding, tornadoes, and other serious dangers.
The industry, sixty years into the nuclear age, has lacked a viable public outreach strategy, hoping its record of consistency will speak for itself. The federal government has proved incapable of creating a satisfactory regulatory body.
Both facts are as naïve as they are unfortunate.
Wind and solar are alluring alternatives, but a revolution in energy storage - battery efficiency - is crucial to harnessing them. Nuclear energy, industry proponents are quick to point out, as compared with coal mining, oil drilling, and natural gas fracking, is remarkably safe - statistically.
But that, as with many things, is true until it is not.
Last week, Vermont Yankee received a twenty-year life extension beyond its scheduled 2012 decommissioning from the NRC. The plant was designed to run for forty years, but industry proponents argue that it and similar sites can sustain 80 years of use. Quietly, many of them hold that plants can run indefinitely, with parts continuously swapped until reactors don’t posses a single component from the original construct.
It is an unsustainable argument. Metals and cement brittle and rust and corrode with age, and the industry has shown itself more inclined to patch rather than fix or replace in the interest of hitting quarterly earning projections.
The Vermont state senate, though, led last year by Peter Shumlin, who has since been elected governor, voted to shutter Yankee. Its fate appears sealed by the disaster at Fukushima.
It is the right decision. Nothing about Entergy’s management has instilled faith with the public that it can continue to operate safely.
The decommissioning process for Yankee is projected to be a $1 billion endeavor, and Entergy, it is now clear, slowed payments into the decommissioning fund after taking over the plant, in 2002.
It has less than $400 million allotted.