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Nuclear Plant Considered Safe Despite Fires

by Drew Foster
The News Tribune, August 10, 2009

HANFORD -- Despite two fires at the Columbia Generating Station in the past six weeks, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers the nuclear plant north of Richland in solid operating condition and has no plans to increase oversight.

Neither fire posed a risk to the public or nuclear plant personnel, but the plant was forced to go offline after each incident. The latest fire occurred about 7:50 a.m. Wednesday when an electrical fault flashed and the arc caused surrounding sheet metal and insulation to melt and smolder.

"It's not like there was a flame," said Gary Miller, a spokesman for Energy Northwest, which operates the plant.

Miller said the "arc flash" occurred in an overhead tray that carries electrical conductors, which distribute plant-generated electricity throughout the facility.

The plant was automatically taken off-line when the flash occurred. It will remain off-line until an investigation is complete, Miller said, adding that the probe should stretch into next week.

Another fire happened in late June when dripping oil sparked a fire in insulation surrounding the plant's turbine system. Workers manually took the plant off-line after that fire, which produced flames between 1 and 2 inches tall.

Both fires were extinguished in about 20 minutes, and no one was injured in either.

"(The fires) are not related at all, and they were in completely different areas of the building," Miller said. "Yeah, it's a coincidence."

No hazardous materials or fumes were released as a result of the June fire. However, Victor Dricks, a spokesman with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the second fire did produce toxic fumes. That forced the nuclear plant to declare "an unusual event," the lowest of four "nuclear events."

"They are not uncommon at nuclear plants," Dricks said of unusual events. "They happen all the time."

The toxic fumes did not put workers at risk, he said.

Dricks said the fires have not prompted the NRC to increase oversight of the plant, but he did say the Columbia Generating Station has crossed the threshold of having three unplanned shutdowns in 7,000 critical hours, or hours of operation of the reactor.

Before Wednesday's shutdown, Dricks said, the Richland plant had a rate of 3.8 unplanned shutdowns in 7,000 critical hours. He said the NRC begins to look more closely at plants that exceed the mark of three unplanned shutdowns in 7,000 critical hours.

Although the plant crossed the threshold, Dricks said the NRC does not plan to take any action at this point. "We are not going to give them any additional oversight," he said. "They are a good operating plant."

Dricks said the passed threshold could be a "possible indicator of other problems," but said the Columbia Generating Plant does not have any more-significant safety issues that would warrant additional oversight. The next threshold sits at seven unplanned shutdowns in 7,000 critical hours.

Miller said management steps have been taken to emphasize equipment reliability and ensure preventive maintenance is thorough.

Drew Foster
Nuclear Plant Considered Safe Despite Fires
The News Tribune, August 10, 2009

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