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Fix Fire Safety Problems at U.S. Power Reactors

A fire at a power reactor could lead to a serious accident and a release of deadly radiation—yet many reactors are not following fire safety regulations. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is working to change this.

In 1975, the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama had a fire in an area that housed thousands of electrical cables used to power critical equipment throughout the plant. The fire disabled the emergency core cooling systems on Unit 1. Water dropped within inches of the reactor core before ad hoc actions by operators regained control, averting a potential reactor meltdown and the deadly release of radioactive material.

In 1980, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) adopted regulations to prevent another Browns Ferry-type incident. The regulations stated that electrical cables for a safety system and its back-up system had to be separated by a distance of 20 feet or the cables had to be wrapped in material that could withstand a fire for at least one hour. 

Today, the NRC and the nation's nuclear plant operators are woefully ignoring these critical fire safety regulations. This despite the fact that the industry's own risk assessment considers fire to be the greatest risk in a nuclear plant's operations.  A 1992 whistleblower's report and a 1993 NRC test found that the most prevalently used fire retardant cable wraps are deficient and fail within minutes of being exposed to fire, as opposed to the required one hour.  Rather than replace the deficient fire wraps, owners are often substituting illegal manual actions to maintain redundant systems.

In January, 2008, the NRC's Inspector General reported that the NRC has repeatedly ignored fire safety violations over the past 15 years. The US Government Accountability Office issued a similar report in June 2008. This past July, NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko testified that it is unlikely that any of the nation's 104 operating nuclear power plants are in compliance with the 1980 regulations. 

In the 33 years since the Browns Ferry incident, the risk of a fire at a U.S. nuclear power plant with potentially deadly consequences remains unacceptably high. 

Please contact the NRC commissioners to urge the NRC to protect the public and vigorously enforce its fire protection regulations. Dr. Dale E. Klein, Chairman; Commissioner Gregory B. Jackzo; Commissioner Peter B. Lyons; Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki at U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Washington, DC 20555-0001 [Tel (301) 415-1750; Email


Fire Protection System at Pilgrim

Pilgrim’s fire protection system according to the NRC Resident Inspector, back in 2004, includes separation, automatic detection and suppression, and operator manual actions. 

Pilgrim relies on “separation” for its primary means of fire defense. The 17 foot distance between the walls is supposed to be great enough to prevent flames from leaping from one room to another. However, when a former NRC Resident Inspector was asked a few years back how “separation” had been determined, it became apparent that they were relying on the original blue prints. There had not been actual inspections by the NRC so he guessed that the distance between the walls was about “one giant step and two bunny hops." 

The NRC Resident Inspector, 2004, was asked for an update. He stated that the licensee inspects the spaces and fire equipment in accordance with pre-established surveillance/test plans. Additionally, the NRC itself performs inspections, including reviews by the Resident Inspectors as part of the baseline program. In general, the resident reviews consider fire hazards and fire protection during routine (daily, weekly, etc) tours of plant areas. The question remains: Can tours of the plant see what is between the walls?

Pilgrim does not use Thermo-Lag for fire wraps that test showed were flammable. Currently we do not know what they use for fire wraps; and if what they use has been properly tested to demonstrate its suitability. HEMYC is not suitable.


Fires at Pilgrim

March 7, 1997 Pilgrim reported a spill of 4,300 gallons of combustible insulating oil over 7,000 square feet inside the reactor’s turbine building. Fortunately it did not ignite. Because of the large oil spread, NRC determined that a fire could have disabled both the normal and emergency systems used to cool the reactor fuel – a potential disaster. Pilgrim’s fire analysis did not foresee a spill – nor do they see a terrorist attack.

November 10, 2000, Pilgrim reported that a welder performing routine maintenance work triggered a small fire. The fire was started by sparks showering from a welder’s torch that ignited radioactive waste contaminated rags in a room below. However, the public is told that fire safety at Pilgrim rests mainly upon the assumption that a fire will not spread from one room to another because the distance between the walls of each room is such to isolate any given fire – 17 feet. The 17-foot space was supposed to be empty. Did the welder’s sparks jump 17 feet? 

Recent NRC Event Reports
NRC Event Report 44611Unusual Event - Fire in HP Calibration Lab; 2008

NRC Event Report 37513 Unusual Event Declared due to Fire onsite; 2000.
NRC Event Report 35736: Unusual Event declared Due to request for Off-Site Fire Fighting Assistance to Extinguish Main Transformer Fire;1999.



Fire When NOT Ready  is a report on a primary threat of reactor core meltdown  and the unacceptable efforts by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect Americans from this known hazard, October 2008




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