Nuclear regulators have begun a review of fire safety conditions at Progress Energy's Brunswick nuclear plant.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the safety of the nation's 104 reactors, notified Raleigh-based Progress and the other utility companies this month that their nuclear plants have multiple risk factors.
The April 21 letter opens an NRC review of the power plants to determine the actual level of risk at each facility. The letter identifies "eight risk factors that can lead to elevated on-going risk if not appropriately mitigated."
The next step in the review will be public hearings with the utility companies that operate the nuclear plants. The companies will ultimately be required to fix the problems.
The two sites sites with the greatest number of risks are Brunswick and Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point. Both are cited for seven out of total eight risks identified by the NRC.
The risks include such factors as emergency procedures that require a large number of operator actions and complex operator actions where "there is not high confidence that operators would be able to implement them in fire conditions."
Progress Energy spokesman Mike Hughes said the company is aware of the problems and has put measures in place to mitigate the risks.
"These typically involve manual fire watches and the like, and meet, or exceed the standard requirements," Hughes said.
The NRC said that none of the nuclear sites have as many risks as Browns Ferry did when it caught fire in 1975, exposing glaring design flaws in the nation's nuclear plants.
Browns Ferry has become legendary in the nuclear community for the fire that a quarter-century ago shut down the plant for more than a year. The fire began in a Keystone Cops fashion when a plant employee checked for air leaks with a candle, setting fire to electrical cable insulation.
That fire triggered sweeping reforms that are still rippling through the industry.
One of the reforms required nuclear plants to wrap electrical conduits in fire-retardant cable. However, the industry invested millions of dollars in insulation that failed to withstand high heat in laboratory tests.
Progress is still dealing with the fallout from the defective cable at its Shearon Harris nuclear plant in southwestern Wake County.
Shearon Harris requires round-the-clock fire patrols and other steps to compensate for the safety deficiencies at the plant.
Progress is in the process of adapting the Shearon Harris plant to a new set of safety regulations adopted by the NRC. The company plans to complete the transition this year and submit the changeover to the NRC for review.