The eyes of the nuclear industry will be watching an Upstate plant next year as it pioneers a new, controversial method of fire protection.
As part of their safety procedures, all nuclear plants have fire watches– employees who walk around looking for any signs of a fire. Now, nuclear officials will be observing a pilot project underway at Oconee Nuclear Station in Seneca that would move away from the foot patrols and instead put more emphasis on sprinkler systems and smoke detectors. The fire watches would be more concentrated along the sections of the plant that are at a high risk of fire.
Oconee, operated by Duke Energy, will be the second plant to test the new procedures. The first is Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant in North Carolina.
Duke spokesman Robert Cook explains the fire watches will still exist; they will just take place over higher-risk parts of the plant rather than the entire facility.
Because the plant is so large, rather than having so many people on fire watch, this allows us to give more dedication to certain areas that may be more susceptible to fire.
A severe fire at an Alabama plant in 1975 led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to create strict fire standards for plants around the country. However, most facilities failed to meet the standards, resulting in the fire watches. Frustrated regulators eventually reached a deal with the power companies in 2001: the companies could sign up for a voluntary program (NFPA 805) that required officials to exhaustively study the plant and come up with a customized fire plan for each.
Oconee and Harris were the first two plants to finish the study. The NRC gave Oconee permission to move forward with the new system in January. Agency spokesman Roger Hannah said he understands why power companies want to focus more on critical parts of the plant with their fire systems.
If you look at your house, obviously somewhere like the kitchen has a much higher probability for a fire than some other parts of your home. If you were going to put fire alarms and sprinkler systems (in your house), the kitchen would probably be a place to put it.
However, nuclear opponents say they are concerned about some aspects of the new system. Paul Gunter of the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear said he was concerned Oconee plans to decentralize some parts of its fire defense system. For example, if there were a fire in electrical cables, Oconee’s proposal would send employees to manually shut down the nuclear reactor.
What they don’t account for is that it could be a suicide mission… They will send some guy down through the plant, maybe in areas filled with smoke, fire, (or) radiation to manually shut down the reactor. They had formerly been required to shut down from the control room.
The industry will be closely watching the results, as an additional 29 sites are currently enrolled in the NFPA 805 program. Among those are the Vigil Summer facility in Fairfield County, Catawba Nuclear Station in York County, and the Robinson Nuclear Generating Station near Hartsville.
Gunter accuses power companies of trying to cut costs so they can afford the next generation of nuclear reactors— specifically the Westinghouse AP1000. He and other activists say the NRC would be better served by enforcing the existing rules.
The fire code is on the books. If you had a daycare or a restaurant and you were not in compliance with fire code, the state would come and shut you down…That’s the kind of ultimatum that needs to come to the nuclear power industry right now.
Fires are not a rare event at nuclear plants. There have been 153 reported in the past 15 years, with a large number being electrical fires. No one from the public has ever suffered an injury due to fire at a nuclear facility.