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Project on Government Oversight




NRC Feeling Heat on Fire Safety

July 3, 2008 


From POGO's blog:

For years, POGO has promoted improved security at NRC and DOE facilities. Security concerns were amplified recently when the NRC bungled an investigation into sleeping guards at the Peach Bottom plant in eastern PA. (Their investigation primarily involved asking the utility if there was a problem).

The NRC's hands-off record was also evident when POGO investigated safety concerns at nuclear power plants. In 1996, POGO released a report (which has one of the greatest titles in POGO report history) finding that for nearly twenty years, the NRC has acquiesced to the nuclear industry by allowing significant safety problems to fester for years before they are actually, if ever, fixed. One of the safety concerns POGO highlighted involved fire protection.

According to a recent GAO report, it appears that acquiescence to the industry is still a hot topic at the NRC. The GAO investigated fire safety at nuclear power plants and found a number of potential problems that included inadequate fire protection of certain emergency systems and long-term use of "interim" safety measures.  The GAO also took issue with the NRC's failure to centralize relevant information on nuclear plants, and pointed out potential pitfalls in revisions to the NRC's regulatory framework.

While the GAO's findings are a cause for concern, the data on fires at American nuclear plants in recent years demonstrates either that the NRC's patchwork of policies has been effective, or that the nuclear industry has been lucky. The GAO reported that the 125 fires that took place at 54 of the nation's 65 nuclear power plants from 1995 to 2007 were all of limited significance and did not pose a major risk. Even if this record suggests that the chance of a nuclear disaster is low, such a risk can never be low enough. With many of America's reactors aging and a possible renaissance for nuclear energy on the horizon, there is no better time than now for the NRC to resolve long-standing fire safety issues.

The burning question is why the NRC continues to allow plants to sidestep the fire safety issue. Following a 1975 fire at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama, the NRC implemented safety regulations that included mandated fireproofing of certain cables and equipment used to shut down the reactor in case of an emergency. However, many plants installed and have not replaced a fire-protecting wrap that the NRC found to be "inoperable" in the early 1990s after discovering that the manufacturer had falsified the results of tests on this material that in fact burned quite well.

Faulty fire wrap and other potential safety hazards still exist at many nuclear plants because the NRC regularly grants exemptions that allow nuclear plant operators to implement manual procedures, such as "fire watches" in which workers patrol the plant, instead of making material changes. That policy stands opposed to the NRC's belief that dependence on human action is less reliable than installing proper equipment. Some manual procedures are meant to be stop-gap measures in place only until the installation of new materials or equipment, but the GAO found that these "interim compensatory measures" have been in place for years at some sites.

All manual procedures that compensate for inadequate equipment are supposed to be approved by the NRC in written exemptions, but the GAO found that some plant operators have implemented such procedures on the basis of verbal approval by an NRC official or the precedent of such a procedure being approved in a similar situation. Identifying these violations of NRC policy is complicated by the agency's failure to keep centralized information on exemptions.

The NRC is now moving towards implementing a voluntary "risk-informed" approach to fire safety.  Instead of being subject to the NRC's standardized regulations, individual nuclear plants can choose to assess fire risks at their plants and prioritize their fire safety expenditures accordingly. However, the GAO concluded that this process is expensive and will be difficult to accomplish because of a lack of data for fire modeling and a shortage of professionals qualified to conduct the necessary assessments. 

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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