By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - New equipment to protect Oconee Nuclear Station from a debilitating fire will be in place by November 2016, six years later than promised, under an agreement announced Wednesday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The federal regulator accepted Duke Energy Carolina's new schedule for finishing its fire protection system and decided not to impose civil fines for missing the old deadline.
The NRC had threatened civil penalties for the company's "particularly poor performance" but decided against them because the utility committed extra resources to the project, improved its own management and oversight, and added other, interim fire protection procedures.
The plant was in violation of its operating license beginning in January, but the violation was labeled as a severity level three, the second-lowest of four severity levels in the enforcement process, according to the agency's statement about Duke Energy's case.
Scott Batson, site vice president at Oconee, said Duke Energy intends to meet or beat the six new deadlines outlined in the NRC's order.
"We are very committed to these dates... and we understand exactly what it will take to meet them," Batson said.
Duke Energy never disputed the NRC's assessment that the company was in violation.
"We recognize that we did not meet our initial commitment," Batson said. "Missing those schedule commitments didn't meet the NRC's expectations, appropriately so, and it did not meet our expectations either."
The new fire protection system, expected to reduce by 38 percent the risk of an accident that could damage the nuclear core, is long overdue. Duke Energy earlier received a two-year extension, from 2010 to 2012, to finish the system.
When the company said last summer it would miss the Jan. 1, 2013 deadline, regulators refused to give the utility until 2014, which prompted the latest NRC review.
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 said 46 of 104 reactor units are expected to transition to the new system over the next several years.
Duke Energy volunteered Oconee as a pilot plant for switching to the new fire protection system, but the process has been more complicated and difficult than expected. Batson said the utility asked federal officials for more time because unexpected design changes forced modifications.
"They made it very clear to us they take this very seriously, but they have also been fair," Batson said.
Nuclear industry watchdogs said the NRC has been too lenient on the company.
"This is a bad precedent and more an indictment of the NRC's same lackadaisical oversight of long-standing, unresolved fire hazards at nuclear power plants," said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear. "If you can imagine non-enforcement for fire code violations at a daycare center, why is delay after delay tolerated for nuclear power plants without imposing a dime in fines?"
The NRC could have charged Duke Energy up to $140,000 a day in civil fines.
Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the NRC likely has run out of patience with Duke Energy.
"Duke said it could meet these deadlines, and if they don't, they don't have a legal leg to stand on," Lochbaum said.
Oconee Nuclear Station is 40 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.
The first new deadline under the NRC agreement is this October, when Oconee is supposed to have backup power available for certain parts of the system if the diesel generator in one part of the plant fails. Batson said finishing that part of the project will put the plant one-third of the way toward the total reduction in risk that the completed fire protection system is supposed to provide.
"If we fail to meet these new milestones... they will definitely pursue additional enforcement, which could include civil penalties," Batson said.