Federal regulators on Thursday gave the go-ahead for Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear plant to try an alternate way to meet fire safety standards that have eluded the facility in Wake County for more than a decade.
Shearon Harris will be the nation's first nuclear plant to attempt to meet fire safety standards through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's experimental approach. The new rules don't apply a uniform standard throughout the nuclear plant but instead set thresholds based on varying risk factors.
The NRC is testing out the new safety standards on two nuclear plants. The other plant applying to use them is Duke Energy's Oconee plant in South Carolina.
Shearon Harris has long been unable to meet federal safety standards because the fire-retardant wrap used on electrical cable and conduits failed to withstand intense heat in laboratory conditions. If a fire were to damage electrical lines at the plant, emergency equipment would be inoperable during a nuclear accident.
Shearon Harris has more of the deficient material, called Hemyc, than any other nuclear plant in the nation, and replacing it all would cost millions of dollars in plant down time, testing and retrofits.
Progress Energy compensates for the Hemyc shortcomings by using round-the-clock foot patrols. The NRC has said the foot patrols bring Shearon Harris into safety compliance but are not an ideal way to protect public safety.
The new rules mean that the company won't have to retrofit the entire facility. Instead, Progress will be able keep Hemyc in much of the plant. In areas that are vulnerable to high risk, the company will have to make extra modifications to protect electrical conduits.
Progress plans to make 44 modifications at the Shearon Harris facility by November. Many have already been completed, said spokeswoman Julia Milstead. Measures include moving physical equipment, installing smoke-control dampers in air ducts, and installing advanced fire detectors that issue alerts hours before smoke is spotted.
The 8-year-long project will cost more than $30 million when completed, Milstead said.
The NRC said that 47 reactors at 17 sites plan to switch to the new safety rules once the industry gains experience with the new standard.
Long-time nuclear critic Jim Warren, who heads the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network in Durham, said the new fire safety rules will lower safety standards and are designed to help power companies manage their costs.