The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently fined the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant for safety violations involving fire watch and suppression procedures.
The NRC investigation found that on multiple occasions the plant’s workers deliberately failed to conduct fire watch patrols. The patrols themselves are supposed to be a temporary measure to compensate for out-of-service fire protection equipment.
Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the company that owns and operates the Alabama-based plant, agreed to pay the $140,000 civil fine.
Though this lapse in fire safety procedures did not result in any actual fires, the patrols are a vital part of the plant’s fire protection procedures. The NRC has found that “typical nuclear power plants will have three to four significant fires over their operating lifetime.” And these fires can have disastrous consequences, a fact that Browns Ferry and TVA should know all too well.
In 1975 a fire began under the control room for two of the reactors at Browns Ferry. The fire damaged control cables for safety systems and their backups and disabled emergency core cooling systems. Thankfully plant workers were able to prevent both reactors from melting down, but it remains one of the worst nuclear power plant fires in US history.
The NRC has struggled to get its plant operators to implement effective fire protection systems. A Project On Government Oversight report detailed problems with a fire barrier system installed in many power plants during the 1980s called Thermo-Lag 330-1. By 1992 Thermo-Lag was determined “inoperable” by the NRC because it was extremely flammable, but the plants were not required to immediately remove the material. Instead facilities like Browns Ferry were allowed to implement fire watch patrols, which are still being used today.
Fire watch patrols present significant problems as a long-term solution. They only allow plant workers to identify a fire after it starts, and they cannot compensate for a fire barrier in the event that human access is impossible, like when high radiation fields are involved. Additionally POGO found that the NRC documented numerous instances of missed patrols or workers sleeping during their watch.
Despite these concerns and the fact that fire watch patrols are supposed to be an interim measure to support more traditional safety equipment, they have been used at power plants for years.
Browns Ferry has also had problems with their traditional fire safety protocols. In 2010 the plant and TVA were cited for failing to install proper fire protection equipment or conduct proper training.
An NRC Administrator stated that the agency is taking these latest violations particularly seriously as they determined that the misconduct was deliberate. TVA has begun taking corrective actions and has agreed to pay the fine, but POGO hopes to see both the NRC and its plant operators find a more permanent solution to the problem.