February 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Westchester Guardian  February 9, 2012  pg 10 -11

By Abby Luby

Buchanan, New York  – – Several fire safety practices at the Indian Point Nuclear power plants would be ineffective in detecting and extinguishing a fire, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Last week the federal agency denied the plant’s request to be exempt from updating certain fire safety regulations because of potential dangers and risks posed by several of the plant’s non compliant fire safety measures.  Of the 50 exemption requests, 42 were turned down.

“The new requirements state that the company has to have a means [to extinguish fires] that don’t involve operators having to go to where the fire is,” said NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan.


Fire safety regulations have been a serious issue at nuclear power plants since 1975 when a significant fire at the Browns Ferry nuclear reactor in Alabama disabled and ate through hundreds of electric cables running safety systems that could allow operators to control the reactor in an emergency and shut it down if necessary.


In 2000 the NRC began inspecting nuclear power plants for inappropriate fire protection systems and procedures and found many plants relied on their work force to manually respond to fires. In 2006 the NRC updated their fire protection regulations and required plants to comply with the new fire safety procedures by 2009. Compliance required automatic detection and suppression of fires.

In a 98-page letter of February 1, 2012 in which the NRC denied Indian Point owner Entergy exemption requests, numerous non-compliant “fire zones” at the plant were cited that currently required plant workers to manually respond to a fire. For example, one particular zone included a control room, turbine building, superheater building, nuclear service building, chemical systems building and administration building. Combustibles in this particular zone were in “cable insulation, lube oil, vinyl insulation, and hydrogen,” and that “transient combustibles in this zone consist of trash, cardboard drums, lube oil, fiberglass ladders, paint, and radiation boundaries.”

According to Sheehan, there are 350 fire zones at Indian Point. “This is a typical number for these types of reactors. However, plant owners are free to define what they consider a fire zone, so the numbers can vary.”

Entergy spokesperson Jerry Nappi said Indian Point conducts fire watches on an hourly basis and on an ‘as-needed’ basis for areas that are undergoing work. Nappi also said the plant had a trained fire brigade of about 100 members.

“This is not a volunteer position but a requirement. They undergo training at an accredited fire training academy offsite prior to being able to stand watch or begin working in the plant. They also undergo annual re-qualification training and periodic drills throughout the year.”

Although there is no fire truck on site, Nappi said there is a large volume of designated water for fires stored in several tanks which is more than the amount of water contained in a fire truck. Overall Nappi added that “the plant has several installed fixed suppression systems including foam systems, and fire water systems covering all areas of the plant. Fire water systems support sprinklers, hydrants, and hose stations.”

Denying exemptions is rare for the NRC. According to audits by the federal Government Accounting Office and the NRC’s own Inspector General, between 1982 and 2001 the NRC handed out 900 exemptions from the fire safety regulations to nuclear power plants across the country. It’s unknown how many exemptions the NRC granted from 2001 to 2011. In 2007 the NRC granted an exemption to Indian Point that allowed them to use a lower quality fire resistant material known as Hemyc which resists fire for only 24 minutes, a period of time critics claimed wouldn’t be long enough to catch and contain a fire in an area that was monitored hourly.

Allowing Indian Point to use Hemyc exposed the exemption process for being non-transparent and secretive, where the exchange between the NRC and power plant owners excludes the public. Challenging the legality of the Hemyc exemption in 2009 was Richard Brodsky. The former New York assemblyman sued the NRC claiming the practice of exempting nuclear plants from binding safety requirements was illegal.  Brodsky claimed that “Rather than require Entergy to upgrade the insulation to meet its own requirements, the NRC in complete secrecy with no public announcement, no public participation, and no public hearing, granted Entergy an exemption.” The case is still pending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. Co-plantiffs are the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The NRC’s rejection of Indian Point’s exemption requests was applauded by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who saw the action supporting his own petition submitted to the NRC last March urging the federal agency to take enforcement action against Indian Point for “continued failure to comply with federal fire safety regulations established to keep plants secure in an emergency.” The petition is still pending.  Both Schneiderman and Governor Andrew Cuomo have been active in opposing Indian Point’s application for a 20-year extension of the plants’ operating licenses.

In a press release last week Schneiderman said “The NRC should be commended for its action on this matter. However, many basic questions still remain regarding the safety of Indian Point and the security of the 17 million people who live and work in close proximity to the nuclear plant. We will continue to use the full force of this office to push the NRC to fully evaluate — and ensure –Indian Point’s safety.”

Indian Point has 30 days to respond to the NRC’s letter.  Entergy spokesperson Jim Steets said costs to upgrade the fire safety systems won’t be significant.

“We spent $70 million on maintenance and depending on how long it takes to install a new system, the cost will be absorbed in the maintenance budget. We originally thought we could accomplish the same [fire safety practices] to avoid lengthy development and the review process. You don’t want to spend money you don’t need to spend.”


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