Fires represent half of the risk of core meltdowns at nuclear power plants in the United States, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC.
"In other words, the fire hazard equals all other hazards combined,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That fire hazard the NRC calculated assumes that plants are following all the rules, following all the procedures. When workers aren’t following all the rules, that fire hazard even gets greater than it already is.”
KPBS has obtained internal records that outline concerns that fire safety rules at San Onofre were not followed this year.
In 2010, NRC inspectors told majority owner Southern California Edison that welding and grinding work at San Onofre produced sparks that came into contact with unprotected combustibles. Welding and grinding is done at the plant during outages for upgrades, repairs and refueling about once a year. The NRC inspectors found that employees and their supervisors violated the rules for this work. The inspectors determined the violations were more than minor because if left uncorrected, a fire could start near important equipment.
This year it appears at least some of those violations continued. Complaints contained in San Onofre documents indicate workers have failed to properly contain sparks created by welding and grinding activities at the plant.
The plant’s fire protection officials say blankets meant to enclose the activities contained tears. Sparks fell into areas where there were oil, chemicals and wood, according to officials. They also found that a pre-work checklist incorrectly stated that flammables had been removed from the area where this work took place. And Edison supervisors did not provide regular oversight despite repeated complaints of fire safety problems, according to people onsite.
The documents show that so far this year, there was one small fire that was quickly extinguished and 52 fire official notifications that fire rules were not followed, all within a period of just over one month. That's consistent with the rate of problems in 2010, when the NRC warned the plant was violating safety rules. Then there were two fires and 102 notices of violations over two months. In 2009, those notices went out 104 times. And there were five fires.
These fires were not near the reactors and did not pose a risk to them. But former nuclear industry executive Arne Gundersen says any fire at a nuclear plant is dangerous.
“Fires and nuclear power plants don’t belong in the same sentence,” Gundersen said. “It’s clearly something you want to avoid at all costs.”
In a written statement, Edison acknowledged there were fire safety problems connected with welding and grinding activity in 2009 and 2010. But it said the matter has been addressed. The NRC said it has not received the fire safety complaints outlined in internal San Onofre documents this year. The agency sent a letter to Edison this month stating that San Onofre’s overall performance in resolving problems was effective.
But David Lochbaum says the sheer number of fire safety violation notices from San Onofre’s own fire inspectors over three years reflects poorly on Edison’s management.
“The message it sends to workers is that management doesn’t care if there are problems,” he said. “The plants that are successfully run are those who listen to plant workers and respond properly when those workers raise issues. That’s not happening at San Onofre. Eventually workers get turned off and stop reporting things because they figure management doesn’t care.”
In the last four years, San Onofre has had the highest number of safety complaints from workers to the NRC of any nuclear plant in the country. San Onofre workers have told federal regulators they fear retaliation if they report the concerns.
The NRC’s recent letter to Edison, however, finds the company has established a safety-conscious work environment in which workers feel free to raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation.
There there have been other fire-related issues at the plant. In 2008, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that fire watch records had been falsified.
The NRC tightened its fire protection rules in 1980, five years after the nation’s first fire at an Alabama nuclear plant. The agency strengthened those guidelines again in 2004. But the NRC says Edison has not yet met those guidelines. Neither have nearly half of the nation’s other nuclear plants.
“These fire protection rules were on the books before San Onofre ever started up so there’s been ample opportunity to modify the facilities to meet the rules, but Edison hasn’t chosen to meet the rules,” Gundersen said. “It’s easier to just keep applying for exemptions, which of course the NRC almost always grants.”
In fact, one of the frequently asked questions on the NRC’s website is why doesn’t the agency force nuclear power plant operators to make long-term changes to their plants for fire protection.
The NRC responds with, “The NRC has a unique challenge. This is because licensees' put interim (or temporary) compensatory measures in place because of questions regarding their interpretations of the agency's regulations (rather than because of degraded or failed safety structures, systems, or components).”
So what do fire safety concerns raised by insiders at San Onofre mean for the public? Lochbaum said they should raise alarms when you consider the plant’s proximity to earthquake faults.
“Earthquakes can break pipes that have oil and flammable gas that then get ignited if you already have fire protection problems and you don’t meet fire regulations, that could be a knockout blow that the Tsunami was at Fukushima,” Lochbaum said.