By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Oconee Nuclear Station may be allowed to go six years past its original deadline for installing a new fire protection system, prompting industry watchdogs to question the federal government's commitment to enforcing its own rules.
Duke Energy, which operates the facility, first said it would finish revamping fire safety items by the end of 2010. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later allowed the company to take until 2012. In January, it rejected Duke Energy's request to extend the deadline to 2014, a possible sign the agency was running out of patience.
Duke Energy, while apologizing for missing the 2012 deadline, now is asking for four more years, to November 2016 - 10 years from when the fire safety system was first designed.
"It's more than just an extension - it's an extended policy of the NRC of non-enforcement of a very significant safety issue," said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear.
Duke officials, in a recent meeting with NRC staff, promised the work would be finished by 2016 and that temporary fire safety measures would suffice in the meantime. The utility, which volunteered to make Oconee one of the first two plants to pilot the new more flexible fire safety procedures, said some work has been more complicated and time-consuming than expected, but it's committed to finishing the job.
"We still believe it is the right thing to do because of the safety benefits," said Preston Gillespie, vice president of the Oconee Nuclear Station. "Oconee has already achieved some of the safety benefits... and each phase we complete provides some incremental risk benefit to the site. However, we do not excuse the fact we missed our committed implementation date."
The NRC is expected to decide by April 30 how to penalize Duke Energy for not finishing one of the major fire safety projects by Jan. 1, as promised. Options include a mild rebuke, fines of up to $140,000 a day, and revocation of the plant's operating license.
Duke is asking the agency to declare the missed deadline a level three violation rather than a more serious level one or two violation, which would normally result in civil fines.
Critics of nuclear power and industry watchdogs say it would be wrong to penalize a utility for missing a safety deadline and also grant it an extension.
"It would be funny if the stakes weren't so high," said Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "That's totally unacceptable. Fire protection regulations that are not met aren't protecting anybody."
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the agency will make sure "Duke completes its (fire protection) transition for Oconee promptly and completely."
In 2004, the NRC allowed nuclear plant operators to begin switching from rigid, one-size-fits-all fire protection rules to a more customized system based on each plant's risks. Agency officials report that 46 of 104 reactor units are expected to transition to the new system over the next several years.
Fire at a nuclear power plant is a serious threat. It can prevent a safe shutdown and cause the reactor core to overheat and radiation to leak.
Not since 1975 has a fire threatened a nuclear plant's ability to shut down safely, according to an October report by the Government Accountability Office. That accident, at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama, damaged electrical cables, impaired the reactor's cooling system and prevented workers from monitoring the reactor's status.
Oconee Nuclear Station is 30 miles west of Greenville and has three pressurized water reactors. It's one of the largest nuclear plants in the country, and its 40-year operating license has been extended by 20 years.
NRC officials say plants operating under the old fire safety rules are safe enough to continue operating, but the new rules increase safety because they're based on advances in fire risk analysis and fire science.
Reduced safety was one reason the NRC denied Oconee's request to extend its deadline from 2012 to 2014. NRC officials said the Oconee plant would be 40 times safer if Duke had met its deadlines.
Gunter and Lochbaum said they are hoping for stiff fines against Duke Energy.
"That would get this show on the road," Gunter said. "But what we see now, again, is enforcement discretion and non-enforcement and a paper chase that will go on for years in this whole fire protection fiasco."