The safety plan for any nuclear power plant reads like a doomsday book. Earthquakes, floods, airplane crashes, mass evacuations, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, tornadoes -- all are disaster scenarios deemed a risk to reactor safety. The most likely threat, however, involves none of these headline cataclysms.
Fires regularly occur at the 104 U.S. nuclear plants, nearly 10 times a year on average. About half the accidents that threaten reactor cores begin with fires that can start from a short circuit in an electric cable, a spark that ignites the oil in a pump, or an explosion in a transformer. Even a small fire could trigger a chain of events that threatens a meltdown, and some have come close.
Just a year ago, a South Carolina nuclear plant suffered two fires in a single day -- ironically on the 31st anniversary of the nation's worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. The seven-hour crisis escaped much national notice even though it left half the plant without adequate power or a reliable supply of cooling water for its reactors, a situation worsened by workers' unfamiliarity with the proper safety response.
Despite growing concerns, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hardly ever issues serious penalties for fires, preferring instead for voluntary compliance and slaps on the wrist, a review by iWatch News found. The South Carolina plant, for instance, received low-level written citations that carried no penalty after the March 2010 fires.
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