Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nebraska Has The Most Fire-Prone Nuclear Plant in the U.S.

While the international community focuses on Japan and its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the safety of which was seriously compromised following a massive earthquake, the United States has a renewed interest in the safety of nuclear power at home.

A probe into the safety of US nuclear plants, using data from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and data visualization software, suggests that America's plants are relatively safe overall, but that some power plants are more prone to incidents than others.

Number of Significant Nuclear Power Plant Fires 1999-2009 Many Eyes
(Click the link to interact with the data on nuclear plant fires in the US on the IBM ManyEyes website)

The Cooper Nuclear Power Plant, near Brownville, Neb., has the worst record in the country when it comes to fire safety. From 1999 to 2009, it reported six significant fires to the NRC. The plant reported two other significant fires in 1996.

The plant makes Nebraska, which only has two nuclear plants (the other being Fort Calhoun, in Washington County), the state with the most nuclear plant fires in the past decade.

Additional NRC fire inspection reports show that the plant had 14 violations between 2000 and 2009. One of those violations included a "white" violation, "an issue with low to moderate increased importance to safety," where plant operators had improper procedures to safely shut down the plant in the event of a fire.

[Download the full spreadsheet of NRC fire inspections for this and all U.S. nuclear plants here]

"Between 1997 and June, 2007, the licensee failed to ensure that two emergency operating procedures which controlled activities affecting quality were appropriate to the circumstances," regulators reported. "Additionally, the licensee failed to properly verify and validate procedure steps to ensure that they would work to accomplish the necessary actions."

Other fire inspection violations included:

2006: Failures to Properly Control Combustibles in the Plant.

2004: Failure to ensure redundant safe shutdown systems located in the same fire area are free of fire damage.

2002: Failure to follow procedure resulting in a fire.

2001: Failure to install fire detectors in accordance with federal regulations.

In one 2009 inspection, NRC regulators made several findings about the safety of the plant, and noted an event where a maintenance tech tried to replace a leaky O-ring in a control valve hydraulic fitting, but used a wrong-sized part. This caused a leak at the plant, forcing operators to take the turbine off-line and shut down the reactor.

"The finding is more than minor because it adversely affected the configuration control attribute of the initiating events cornerstone, and adversely affected the cornerstone objective to limit the likelihood of those events that upset plant stability and challenge critical safety functions during shutdown as well as power operations, in that this finding resulted in a condition that prompted a plant
shutdown from 70 percent power," regulators wrote.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), which owns the Cooper plant, was among 16 nuclear energy providers who sued the Department of Energy (DOE) to stop collection of a nuclear waste fee.

According to the Lincoln, Neb. Journal Star, the DOE currently charges the providers 0.1 cents-per-kilowat to dispose of nuclear waste. But the plaintiffs argue that the DOE hasn't been complying with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, and shouldn't have to pay the fee.

The Journal Star reported that NPPD built a $80 million storage facility at the Cooper plant to store spent fuel rods.

The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on March 8. The 9.0-magnitude Japan earthquake happened three days later. The Christian Science Monitor wrote that reports are emerging from international regulatory agencies about lax oversight of the Fukushima plant.

NPPD officials are confident about the plant's ability to withstand natural disasters. A recent Associated Press story quoted the NPPD spokesperson as saying the Cooper plant can withstand 300 mph winds, a 6.0-magnitude quake and a 1 million-year flood.

Reposted from The Horseshoe Blog.