Charge Four: Endangering Nuclear Plant Workers and the Public through Non-Enforcement of Fire Safety Laws
The Problem: A near catastrophic fire on March 22, 1975 at the Brown's Ferry 1, Alabama nuclear plant set in motion federally-mandated fire protection laws to ensure the safe shutdown of nuclear power plants following a significant fire. Yet, for decades, nuclear reactor owners across the U.S. have failed to comply with these regulations and, most ironically, the Brown's Ferry plant that instigated the regulations is itself not in compliance with them. Equally ironically, the NRC cites fire as the most likely contributor to “station blackout” – a loss of on-site and off-site power which can then set in motion a catastrophic accident such as occurred at the Fukushima-Daiichi reactors in Japan.
Furthermore, in defiance of federal Orders to bring reactors into compliance, owners have illegally substituted their own, less protective actions without first seeking the required approval for exemptions. In at least one case and likely more, reactor owners have then misled the NRC regarding the completion of corrective actions per federal Orders to come into compliance with law. The nuclear industry has abandoned frontline fire protection using control room-powered safe shutdown at many reactors. Instead, it is relying on sending workers into the plant to execute last-ditch manual actions.
The Charge: NRC is charged with endangering the public and nuclear plant workers through non-enforcement of — and exemptions for — measures that govern fire safety, which the agency itself identifies as the highest risk to nuclear plant safety. After decades of non-enforcement of its own fire-protection laws, the NRC has instead granted exemptions to reactor owners that diminish reactor safety and increase the risk of a meltdown. Yet, the NRC cites fire as the most likely contributor to “station blackout” – a loss of on-site and off-site power which can then set in motion a catastrophic accident such as occurred at the Fukushima-Daiichi reactors in Japan. Ultimately, rather than enforce its own law and its own Orders, the NRC repeatedly ignored violations until finally issuing exemptions to allow the manual actions.
Next Steps: Beyond Nuclear is requesting an investigation and public accounting of how many reactor operators did not complete corrective actions per Order and willfully misrepresented compliance with Orders which would be a felony violation of NRC law. The Fukushima disaster calls for the examination of protracted non-enforcement policy and the abandonment of front line control room powered operations. Beyond Nuclear is also sounding the alarm for the broader implication of industry compliance with future NRC Orders.
Background: Statement of Paul Gunter, Beyond Nuclear Director of Reactor Oversight. Before the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Commission Briefing on National Fire Protection Association 805, December 13, 2011.
Beyond Nuclear press release: Beyond Nuclear Investigation Shows Nuclear Reactor Fire Safety Laws Unenforced, December 13, 2011.