Fire in a civilian nuclear power plant has long been one of the safety issues that has most troubled the industry since its formative days in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the April 1975 fire at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Unit 1 was a seminal event in U.S. nuclear power history. But that was hardly the end of the story. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission puts fire at the top of its safety concerns, calculating that fire constitutes half of all reactor safety risks, and lately fire safety has again become a major industry issue. For example…

  • Carolina Power and Light’s 789-MW H.B. Robinson Unit 2 in Hartsville, S.C., suffered multiple fires March 28 that prompted the NRC to send a special inspection team to the plant, followed by an augmented inspection team. The NRC said, according to Nuclear Engineering magazine, "Further review by the company and the NRC found additional deficiencies in operations which increased the overall risk and pointed to the need for additional inspection."
  • On the same day, according to North Carolina television station WECT, Progress Energy reported a fire in its Brunswick Unit 1 nuclear plant to the NRC. According to the report, the fire lasted more than 15 minutes and started in the plant’s turbine building.
  • On March 29, FirstEnergy reported a lubrication fire near a coolant feedwater pump at its Perry nuclear plant in Ohio. According to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the short-lived blaze resulted in two members of the fire brigade being transported to a hospital for heat stress, the utility reported.
  • On April 20, the NRC issued a "yellow" violation to TVA for fire-protection problems at all three Browns Ferry units, citing problems with the location of cables. A yellow violation is the next-to-highest in the NRC’s color-coded hierarchy of safety significance, meaning that the violation is of "substantial safety significance."
  • The next day, The Charlotte News and Observer reported that the NRC’s Office of Reactor Regulation issued a letter identifying five other plants with fire risk factors, based on the analysis of Browns Ferry. Those were Progress Energy’s two Brunswick units, FPL’s Turkey Point Units 3 and 4 in south Florida, Southern Co.’s two Farley units, Entergy’s Arkansas Nuclear One, and SCANA’s Corp.’s V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina.
  • The heightened concern over fire safety, which has been a major focus of NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko, prompted local anti-nuclear groups and the Union of Concerned Scientists in early May to petition the NRC’s Office of Inspector General to examine possible wrong-doing by the commission. UCS nuclear safety engineer David Lochbaum said that the NRC’s fire protection program "looks more like smoke and mirrors than real fire safety." The filing claims "extensive evidence that two international fire science panels, an industry trade association, a national testing lab and the NRC itself have found serious limitations that essentially render the models unreliable for safety decision-making."