Fire Protection:

Barriers to Effective Implementation of NRC's Safety Oversight Process

RCED-00-39: Published: Apr 19, 2000. Publicly Released: May 22, 2000.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) fire protection program, focusing on: (1) NRC's efforts to improve its oversight of fire protection at nuclear power plants; (2) any potential barriers to the successful implementation of the risk-informed oversight process for fire protection; and (3) the extent to which fire risk assessments consider the possible failure of passive fire barriers and penetration seals and whether the cumulative effect of granting exemptions has increased the risk of fire at nuclear power plants.

GAO noted that: (1) over the last several years, NRC has undertaken several activities to improve fire protection at commercial nuclear power plants; (2) NRC found various problems at the plants and required the utilities to correct them; (3) more importantly, NRC concluded that its oversight of the utilities' fire protection programs needed to be improved; (4) although NRC will proceed with its new risk-informed safety oversight process, its effectiveness for fire protection could be hampered because important components will not be in place when implementation begins in April 2000; (5) under the new oversight process, NRC will use the risk assessments of the utilities to establish thresholds of performance and inspections and indicators to assess whether performance meets the thresholds; (6) NRC is working with industry to develop a standard to help ensure the quality, scope, and adequacy of the utilities' fire risk assessments but does not expect to have such a standard until about 2 years after the new oversight process is implemented; (7) performance indicators for fire protection are also under development; (8) this summer, the nuclear utility industry plans to pilot test them, and it hopes to provide some agreed upon indicators to NRC in October 2000, 6 months after the new oversight process will have been implemented; (9) until NRC finalizes the standard and develops the performance indicators, it will implement the new oversight process by relying on its inspection program to monitor the utilities' fire protection efforts; (10) NRC's review of risk assessments for 38 nuclear power plants found that the failure of passive fire barriers (walls), active fire barriers (doors), and penetration seals had not been considered; (11) however, most of the assessments assumed a small fire, and NRC concluded that the failure to include barriers and seals was not important because a small fire would not adversely affect them; and (12) in addition, NRC used the risk assessments at 13 plants to determine whether the cumulative effects of exemptions (alternative actions to comply with regulations) that it had granted since 1983 increased the risk of a fire and generally found them not risk significant.

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