Waves of Uncertainty: The Demise of the Floating Reactor Concept (Part II)

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian
 

Offshore Power Systems, apparently, did not appreciate that putting land-based reactors out to sea was bound to raise new safety, environmental and regulatory questions. Concerns about ship collisions, off-shore fishing grounds, barge sinking and the challenge of creating a new regulatory process for floating reactors were just some of the unique issues facing regulators.

Even the trade press raised concerns. Nuclear News worried about the “incredibly tangled mass of overlapping jurisdictions, state, national, and international law, inter-agency authority” that included new players such as the U.S. Coast Guard.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.
Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Events conspired to worsen OPS’s prospects. The oil crisis that began in 1973 made construction financing expensive and slowed electricity consumption. Facing slack demand, PSEG postponed delivery of the first floating plant from 1981 to 1985 and later to 1988. Tenneco backed out of the OPS partnership in 1975. With the entire enterprise threatened, Westinghouse and the Florida Congressional delegation asked the federal government to purchase four plants. But, the prospect of “bailing out” OPS did not appeal to officials in the Ford Administration. The purchase proposal died.

Floating reactors did not solve regulatory or political problems. The production facility in Jacksonville needed an NRC manufacturing license. There were so many technical and regulatory uncertainties that the licensing review ran three years behind schedule. A 1978 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office criticized the NRC for what it believed was an incomplete safety review, particularly for not accounting for impacts on the ocean ecosystem during an accident where a melting reactor core broke through the bottom of the barge.

Local and state opposition to the plant was intense. Nearby counties voted in non-binding referendums 2 to 1 against the Atlantic Generating Station, and the New Jersey legislature refused to introduce a bill to turn the offshore site over to PSEG.

Westinghouse held out hope for a brighter future; PSEG didn’t. In late 1978, the utility announced it canceled its orders for all four of its floating plants. Slack demand, it noted, was “the only reason” for the cancellations. “We simply will not need these units” in the foreseeable future, a utility official admitted.

Others blamed excessive regulation. In March 1979, John O’Leary, a Department of Energy deputy secretary, provided to the White House a “grim—even alarming report,” as one staffer said, that the NRC delays with the OPS license were symptomatic of a larger problem. “It has become impossible to build energy plants in America” O’Leary said, due to excessive environmental regulations and an indecisive bureaucracy. Environmental laws, O’Leary complained, had created “a chain of hurdles which effectively kill energy projects” and damage to the nation’s economy. He wanted presidential action.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.
Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Events rendered O’Leary’s plea for action moot. Two and a half weeks later the Three Mile Island accident occurred, ending any hope of an imminent industry rebound. The accident raised anew questions about a core melt accident and further delayed the manufacturing license. The NRC did not issue a license until 1982. In 1984, Westinghouse formally abandoned the OPS enterprise, dismantled the Jacksonville facility, and sold its huge crane to China.

Going to sea, OPS discovered, did not allow it to escape the problems that beset nuclear power. A novel technological solution could not overcome public distrust and economic, technical and regulatory uncertainty. We shall see how Russia handles the challenges.

Before the Browns Ferry Fire: Antiquated Notions That Electricity and Water Didn’t Mix

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian
 
Browns Ferry Fire: Historial Photo
Browns Ferry Fire: Historical Photo

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.

firemanDavid 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.