Nuclear plant wiring at risk of fire

September 30, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

A fire retardant widely used in the nation's nuclear plants and known to be defective by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for years is at the center of a federal indictment issued yesterday in which the manufacturer was accused of falsifying tests on its effectiveness.

The insulation, called Thermo-Lag 330, was developed in the wake of one of the nation's worst fires, at an atomic power plant in Browns Ferry, Ala., in 1975. Doubts surfaced in 1987 when one utility questioned its ability to prevent the spread of fires.

Following yesterday's indictment, nuclear industry critics asked the NRC to immediately remove the insulation from more than 80 power plants equipped with it. The region's closest plants are in southern Pennsylvania and in Virginia. No Thermo-Lag was used at the Calvert Cliffs plant in Lusby.

Four plants in the mid-Atlantic region, all in Pennsylvania, have the retardant: Peach Bottom in York near the Harford County line; Limerick outside Philadelphia; Susquehanna in Barwick; and Three Mile Island, south of Harrisburg.

Critics of the nuclear industry say that although the risk of a fire is small, the results could be catastrophic if the retardant is not replaced.

"It's there to protect the cables that run the reactor in vital parts of the plant," said James Riccio, staff attorney for Public Citizen in Washington, D.C.

"In the event of a fire, this stuff's not going to work. It's a meltdown."

Tests showed that Thermo-Lag's joints can weaken and separate, making the cables vulnerable. The retardant also failed tests to resist fire for the required three hours. Critics also say that the insulation -- which looks like dry wall and is pieced together to cover key electrical cables -- can cause cables to over heat and is combustible.

The NRC denied that and said that the retardant has led to no fires or other accidents.

Officials with the NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute say that safety measures at the plants have been revised to correct the problem. Many plants -- including those at Peach Bottom -- have instituted "fire watches," with employees patrolling areas where the retardant is installed.

Some rely on automatic fire detectors and sprinklers, and others have installed more Thermo-Lag, using new overlapping techniques approved by the NRC.

Thermo-Lag is being installed at a new plant in Tennessee and in twoplants in Texas that are being upgraded. Of the plants affected, 15 have taken corrective steps, according to the NRC.

"Because of these measures, it's unlikely that a fire would challenge the fire barrier," said John Kopeck, an NRC spokesman.

The seven-count indictment returned yesterday charges Thermal Science Inc. of St. Louis, Mo., and its president, Rubin Feldman, in a 10-year conspiracy to falsify laboratory reports and circumvent federal regulations.

Beginning in 1982, Mr. Feldman persuaded utilities to purchase Thermo-Lag as part of stepped-up requirements following the Browns Ferry fire, which caused a temporary loss of control of the reactor.

Instead of independent testing, TSI hired a Missouri laboratory whose president signed test reports that had been written by TSI, according to prosecutors.

TSI made approximately $60 million on the sale of Thermo-Lag, ** U.S. Attorney for Maryland Lynne A. Battaglia said in announcing the indictment yesterday.

The probe, by the NRC's office of inspector general and the NRC office of investigations, began two years ago.

The laboratory that signed off on the tests, Industrial Testing Laboratories Inc., and the company president pleaded guilty last spring. The laboratory was fined $150,000.

Its president, Allan Siegel, agreed to cooperate with the investigation and has not been sentenced.

"We emphatically deny that either TSI or Rubin Feldman engaged in any criminal wrongdoing, and intend to plead not guilty and vigorously contest the charges in court," the company said yesterday in a press release.

Although prosecutors concurred that safety measures taken by the NRC sufficiently protect the public, critics yesterday accused the agencyof being more concerned with protecting the industry.

"It costs money to pull this stuff out," said Mr. Riccio of Public Citizen, who estimated the cost at about $10 million per reactor. "Basically, the NRC's entire Zeitgeist for the past 10 to 12 years is to try to cause the least amount of expense on the industry as possible.

"We think this should be torn out of every reactor it's in, and they better find a fire barrier that works."

Another group, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C., also called for removal of the retardant.

"Here you have the manufacturer under indictment, with one arm of the government prosecuting and another arm of the government installing this material," said Paul Gunter, director of the group's nuclear watchdog project.

The NRC, he said, is violating its own regulations, which prohibit installation of a combustible material in a fire zone.

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