I recently reviewed my remarks for the F&S’97 conference in London, which I chaired, where my theme was “What are the Key Issues?” At that time, they were – the importance of communication, information sharing, technical changes, gathering of reliable fire experience data, performance-based standards, research, upgrading Soviet-era plants, and motivating decision makers on the importance of nuclear power plant fire protections. I continue to feel that all of these issues are as relevant in 1999 as they were in 1997.

I believe that the main challenge facing the industry now is: The Challenge of Success. I define success as the steady improvement in the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) performance indicators that certainly attests the overall improved performance of the 33 nations and 430 nuclear plants around the globe.

From a fire protection standpoint, the degree of our collective success is indicated by a notable accomplishment – no major fires in more than 3 years. But before we get euphoric, let me suggest that success is a double-edged sword. There remains a challenge to all who play a role in maintaining this fine record.

We’ve all heard George Santayana’s famous thought: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to relive it.” The challenge is to be ever vigilant. We must make sure lessons learned are enduring.

The 1975 Browns Ferry fire taught us the need for fire prevention-related administrative controls, noncombustible fire-resistant sealant materials, the benefits of water as a safe and effective extinguishing agent for an energised electrical cable fire, and emergency response coordination with the local fire department. Others have also experienced cable fires and learned similar lessons.

Examples of major turbine-fire generators have occurred in Mühleberg (Switzerland) in 1971, Barsebäck (Sweden) in 1979, Maanshan (Taiwan) in 1985, Chernobyl-2 (Ukraine) in 1991 and St Alban (France) in 1992. During the 1994 Fire & Safety Conference in Barcelona, the attendees made a field trip to the site of a 1989 turbine-generator fire at Vandellos that resulted in the permanent shut-down of a 17-year-old unit. At that conference, papers were presented on the 1991 Salem turbine-generator fire, the 1993 Fermi fire in the US and the 1993 Narora turbine-generator fire in India.

Why mention these fires now? Many of those in the nuclear power industry who were intimately familiar with these events have now retired or moved on. New people are coming in to the industry who were not around when some of these events occurred. Therefore, we are all challenged to keep the hard-learned lessons in mind to avoid becoming complacent. We all need to take ownership, and we must continue to meticulously approach fire protection. It is up to all of us to transcend the “it couldn’t happen here” syndrome.

In the United States, we have a vocal minority of nuclear power plant detractors. One of the loudest voices is a member of the US House of Representatives, Edward Markey, from Massachusetts. He maintains that nuclear power plants are unsafe due to the fire risk. In his latest salvo – a 9 December 1998 news release – he charges that up to half of the estimated risk for core damage and radioactive release is from fire. He has challenged the existing standards of the US nuclear industry regarding fire protection. Specifically, he alleges that the 700 fire protection exemptions at 104 nuclear plants are symptomatic of an industry vulnerability. Further, he’s called for an investigation into nuclear power plant fire protection. We in the industry believe that all of his concerns have been or are currently being addressed.

But, here again, we must be ever vigilant to prevent fires for humanitarian and operational reasons, and to avoid giving nuclear power plant detractors a platform on which to attack the industry.

Fires are always with us

Although no major fires have occured in recent years at nuclear power stations, the industry is always reminded of the risks from fires by incidents occurring at power plants. In January, some fires occurred which, although not threatening the nuclear sections, have been significant enough to be reported in the media worldwide. These included two fires in the space of a week at Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima station, the second in a turbine building, and a fire near the turbine at the James FitzPatrick plant in New York.
In Russia, one person was recently killed and four suffered burns when evaporating paint combusted inside a concrete ventilation skip at the Kalinin nuclear power station. The person who died was one of a team painting a ventilation duct. The fire was put out within 10 minutes but the incident caused a measure of local panic – teachers advised children to stay off the streets and to drink iodine.