Few events altered nuclear power regulation as much as the Browns Ferry Unit 1 fire. In March 1975, thousands of electrical cables burned for about seven and a half hours, disabling all of Unit 1’s and many of Unit 2’s emergency core cooling systems. Only creative action by plant operators prevented reactor damage, and only a resort to water hoses rather than portable CO2 fire extinguishers quenched the flames.
The NRC was just two months old when the fire started, and it enacted sweeping reforms to enhance reactor safety from fires, including fire detection, prevention and suppression.
Browns Ferry was so momentous that any discussion of fire history before it often receives little attention and is mistakenly dismissed in a few sentences: The NRC’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, didn’t consider fire a nuclear safety issue. It erred in deferring to non-nuclear standards set by property insurance companies and engineering associations. Such deference was inadequate because insurance standards were designed to limit property damage rather than prevent a reactor accident.
In fact, the fire can’t be so easily blamed on AEC inattention. The agency did believe fire was a reactor safety issue, and it insisted on special fire protection designs that proved inadequate at Browns Ferry. Its key error, then, wasn’t in deferring to non-nuclear fire insurance experts; it sometimes didn’t defer enough. Most egregiously, nuclear regulators rejected expert recommendations on fire suppression systems believing that nuclear safety considerations demanded alternative designs.
By the late 1960s, fire protection experts favored water as a fire suppressant. Tests and experience showed water was the most desirable fire suppressant even in areas with electrical equipment because of its ability to rapidly smother and cool a growing fire. Businesses used water suppression in diverse applications such as computer factories and electric cable rooms in steel mills. Even AEC weapons plants added water to supplement their CO2-based systems. Fire insurance associations recommended water-based fire suppression systems for civilian nuclear power plants.
AEC regulators and the industry disagreed. Having limited nuclear-specific data on fires, they operated from the perspective that electricity and water didn’t mix. They feared water would cause short circuits and disable backup reactor safety systems. With AEC encouragement, new plants commonly installed fixed CO2 fire extinguishing systems in electrical areas, as was done in Browns Ferry’s damaged cable spreading room. In addition, the cable spreading room was not equipped with fire hoses and water supply piping called standpipes.
David Notley, the NRC’s first fire safety expert, noted the ironic result of the AEC’s ignorance on fire suppression. Believing that nuclear power was a special exception to standard industrial practice, regulators dismissed non-nuclear experience that might have improved reactor safety. Had water been used early in the 1975 fire, the duration of the fire, the damage to the plant and the challenge to safely shutting down the plant would have been significantly reduced.
The AEC did treat fire as a reactor safety threat, but it pursued ill-informed solutions. Chastened by Browns Ferry, the NRC expanded its fire regulations and a launched a fire research program that have measurably improved plant safety.