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Auditors: Nuclear plants not following fire rules

WASHINGTON - Operators of nuclear power plants have yet to comply with some of the government's fire safety rules three decades after they were issued, a congressional report said Monday.

The Government Accountability Office said there were 125 fires reported at 54 power plants since 1995, an average of nearly 10 a year, although none threatened safe emergency reactor shutdown or posed any significant safety threats. The fires were mostly electrical or maintenance related.

But the GAO study said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been unable to resolve "several long-standing issues" with the industry over fire safety including full compliance with NRC fire rules put in place in 1976 and 1980 as a result of the fire at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama in 1975.

The blaze, which raged for seven hours at the Browns Ferry Unit 1 reactor, was the worst fire ever at an American nuclear plant. It exposed for the first time that nuclear reactors needed special fire protection to assure a fire did not prevent a reactor from safely shutting down.

The report said some nuclear reactor operators are:

Using unapproved fire safety manuals.

Relying on interim, temporary fixes in response to fire damage instead of making permanent repairs. In one case a plant used "fire watches" designed as temporary safety procedures for five years instead of replacing damaged parts.

Continuing to rely on manual responses, such as a person having to close or open a valve, instead of passive fire protective measures.

Using fire protective wraps around electrical wires without having conducted needed fire endurance tests on the material.

The nuclear industry had no immediate comment on the report. "We haven't had time to examine it," said John Keeley, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group.

Eliot Brenner, a spokesman for the NRC, said the agency considered the GAO report to be accurate and complete. "We will be giving the GAO's findings and conclusions serious consideration," he said.

As industry showed problems with meeting the NRC's "prescriptive" fire safety rules, the NRC in 2004 encouraged reactor operators to adopt a "risk based" approach in which plant operators focused fire safety efforts in areas of the plant where a fire would pose the greatest threat to plant operation and emergency shutdown.

As of April, the new approach had been adopted at only 46 of the 105 reactors, the GAO investigators found.

And the GAO report said the risk-based approach itself faces significant challenges including a shortage of "people with fire modeling, risk assessment and plant-specific expertise" to assure the safety efforts are focused on the right priorities.

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