Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Fair WARNing

Tonight I went to the briefing in Pittsboro on the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant, its serious and repeated fire safety violations, and the legal action that was taken today by NC WARN, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and the Union of Concerned Scientists to seek an emergency enforcement action from the NRC. Here's the demand:

As industry watchdogs on behalf of the public, we hereby submit a 2.206 Emergency Enforcement Petition, concluding and demanding that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must:

Issue an Order requiring the immediate suspension of the operating license for the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant until such time that all fire safety violations affecting safe shutdown functions as designated under current law are brought into compliance. This shall be accomplished without reliance on regulatory bypasses, such as indefinite compensatory measures.

Or in the alternative:

Issue penalties to the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant for the maximum allowable amount of $130,000 for each and every violation for each day the plant operates until compliance with the fire protection regulations is achieved and verified by NRC.

Said environmental lawyer John Runkle on behalf of the petitioners, "It's an unprecedented step, but it's been an unprecedented risk for 14 years." Based on its research, NC WARN calls Shearon Harris one of the most dangerous nuclear power plants in the nation. Four serious fires have happened in its history already.

Public officials were urged to pass resolutions in support of the legal action filed today. I certainly will advocate for quick action on this at the Chapel Hill Town Council. Here's the text of the news release filed by NC Warn today:

Groups Demand N-plant Suspension, Fines for Fire Violations

NRC Plans to Allow Harris, Others Nine Years to Comply With Safety Regs

DURHAM, NC – Insisting that nuclear safety must become a priority – not just a corporate slogan – a trio of state and national watchdog groups filed legal action today calling for federal regulators to take emergency enforcement measures at the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant. The groups revealed that Harris has been in violation of fire safety regulations for 14 years, and that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has arranged a scheme to let the plant study fire vulnerabilities – a top risk factor for nuclear meltdown – for at least nine more years.

NC WARN, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed a legal action against the NRC today, demanding the agency suspend the Harris license until the plant corrects multiple fire safety violations, or levy the maximum fine of $130,000 per violation for each day the plant operates. The watchdogs said Progress Energy plans to apply next month for a 20-year extension to Harris’ operating license, which currently runs until 2026, without correcting its fire violations. The groups told NRC and Progress that they will resist that plan to the fullest extent “via all available legal and civic avenues.”

“Shearon Harris is relying on last-ditch efforts – instead of front line fire protection features – basically to save money,” said Paul Gunter, Reactor Safety Director of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service.

A briefing tonight in Pittsboro for state and local elected officials will feature Gunter and another Washington-based nuclear expert, David Lochbaum of UCS. (7pm, Central Carolina Community College) The three groups released a report today, “Delaying With Fire: The Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant and 14 Years of Fire Safety Violations.” It details how the NRC has allowed dozens of nuclear plants to repeatedly delay correcting widespread flaws in fire protection equipment.

Harris ranks worst in the nation in two fire violation categories: use of failure-prone fire barriers, and reliance on illegal, unverified “compensatory measures” to bypass regulatory compliance. The groups said: “Just like the small spare tire on a car, such actions were intended to be used for hours or days – not 14 years. NRC admits these measures add risk, but allows plants to operate without restoring full fire protections as required by law.”

Fire at nuclear power plants represents up to 50% of the risk for catastrophic accidents according to federal studies, a calculation that assumes fire rules are being obeyed. Each plant contains hundreds of miles of electrical cable. Fire or shorts can cause operators to lose control of the myriad pumps and valves that operate the reactor and safety systems, leading to overheating of the reactor fuel and a large release of radioactivity.

UCS’ Lochbaum released a separate report Monday that blew a hole in industry claims that nuclear plants have grown safer over the years. His study showed that 51 plants have been shut down for at least a year to restore minimum safety levels, a scathing indictment of the NRC’s regulation of the industry. “Plant workers and the public are protected from a Shearon Harris fire – unless a fire actually occurs,” he said today. “If NRC does its job, Harris should join the list of plants shut down to restore safety levels.”

“Both Progress Energy and the NRC can act quickly when revenue is at stake,” said Jim Warren, Director of NC WARN. “After each of the nine sudden reactor shutdowns at Harris between 2002 and 2005, Progress worked expeditiously to restore operations within days or weeks.” “Delaying With Fire” notes that Progress spends tens of millions on executive salaries and influence-peddling each year, but makes a business decision to continuously delay correcting the fire safety problems. “It is apparent that safety is not the $9 billion/year corporation’s “top priority” as so often claimed by its officers and 50-person public relations team,” added Warren today.

The groups say the NRC is among the growing list of federal agencies that, in recent years, have neglected to protect the public against weakened levees, poor emergency planning, mine disasters, leaking oil pipelines and other hazards. “The industry has had so many near-misses already; will the NRC lead the next post-disaster ‘lessons learned’ exercise?” Warren asks. Harris had yet another sudden shutdown yesterday.

The groups told NRC: “We are willing to negotiate allowing the plant to remain open based on a firm timetable for Harris to correct its multiple fire violations no later than its next refueling outage in the fall of 2007. This allows sufficient time to plan the work needed to correct fire violations, and may require an extended outage … Any further ‘study’ of the Harris fire problems is irresponsible.”

“I think most people can agree that federal fire safety regulations are in place for a good reason and must be complied with,” said Margie Ellison, a Chatham community activist who works with WARN. “Our safety is more important than Progress Energy’s wish to avoid spending money to fix all these problems. That company has a lot of audacity to even suggest adding 20 years to that plant’s license without correcting its fire safety violations.”
The report emphasized that if a plant isn’t protected against fire, it is not protected against internal or external attack. Paul Gunter added, “Fire protection is crucial security infrastructure at nuclear power plants. In a post 9/11 world, we cannot afford to gamble on fire safety at nuclear power plants.”

UPDATE 09/22: At last night's assembly of governments meeting, all of us vowed to support this petition as strongly as we possibly can.

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