After years of sounding the alarm over fire safety problems at Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris nuclear plant, five watchdog groups have taken legal action: They filed an emergency petition with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking that the agency either shut down the plant until it comes into full, unqualified compliance with fire regulations, or impose the maximum fine of $130,000 per violation for each day the plant operates out of such compliance.

The move comes as Progress plans to pursue a 20-year license extension for Harris and construction of as many as two new reactors at the plant 25 miles southwest of Raleigh. It also comes as the plant remains under federal and state investigation for security problems reported by whistle-blowing guards.

The groups announced the filing of what’s known as a Section 2.206 petition with the NRC on Sept. 20, during a public forum at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. About 100 citizens and elected officials from the Triangle gathered to listen to leaders from Durham’s N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network and the Washington-area offices of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Filers also included Students United for a Responsible Global Environment and N.C. Fair Share, a social justice advocacy group active in communities near the plant.

“It’s an unprecedented step, but it’s been an unprecedented risk for the past 14 years,” said N.C. WARN attorney John Runkle. “We want to clear up this problem now.”

It typically takes the NRC about two weeks to decide whether to accept a petition and six months to act on it. While the agency usually denies such petitions, it sometimes takes the requested actions anyway, says UCS’s David Lochbaum.

A study on Harris fire safety by N.C. WARN, UCS and NIRS released in conjunction with the filing found that the plant ranks among the nation’s worst for two fire violations: its use of failure-prone barriers to protect hundreds of miles of cables, and its reliance on compensatory measures known as “operator manual actions” to skirt strict compliance with regulations created following a 1975 fire at Alabama’s Browns Ferry nuclear plant. (The report is on-line at The groups liken the use of compensatory actions–some of which entail more than 50 steps to be carried out amidst the chaos of disaster–to that of a car’s doughnut spare tire, both being stopgaps intended to be used temporarily, not years on end.

Fires at nuclear plants represent up to 50 percent of the risk for catastrophic accidents, according to federal studies. They can cause operators to lose control of the reactor and safety systems, leading to overheating and meltdown.

Concerns about conflagrations at Harris are not merely hypothetical, as the facility has experienced at least four fires since going on-line in 1987. One was major: In October 1988, electrical shorts sparked a fire in a generator and transformer that ran 100 feet down an electrical cable, causing a hydrogen leak and explosion. It took two local fire departments and an onsite fire brigade three hours to quell the blaze, which closed the plant for two weeks.

Safety is a problem for the entire U.S. nuclear industry. Two days before the Harris filing, Lochbaum released a UCS report finding that since the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown, 38 U.S. nuclear power reactors have had shutdowns of at least a year to fix serious problems. In the past decade, all of the outages related to safety–evidence, the report concluded, of poor management and regulatory oversight.

At the Pittsboro forum, Lochbaum discussed in detail the near-disaster at Browns Ferry. Following that fire and a congressional inquiry, the NRC enacted regulations requiring physical separation of cables via fire barriers.

Though the Harris plant began operating seven years after the regulations took effect, it’s never been in full compliance. That’s because it relies on the barrier materials Thermo-Lag and Hemyc, which tests have found fail dramatically in fires.

But rather than require Progress to install reliable barriers throughout the plant, the NRC may allow that facility and Duke Energy’s Oconee plant in Seneca, S.C., to become the first in the nation to transition to what the agency calls a “risk-based” regulatory approach. Under this pilot program, plants would calculate the fire risk for different areas and selectively upgrade protections. About half the nation’s nuclear plants have expressed an interest in the program, according to NRC spokesperson Roger Hannah.

During the Chatham County gathering, Paul Gunter of NIRS derided that approach as “faith-based” fire protection. He pointed out that it’s difficult to model fire risk because fire behaves so unpredictably, and the task has become more complicated in a post-9/11 world where terrorists have put nuclear plants on their list of potential targets. Furthermore, aging reactors like Harris present an increased hazard as equipment degrades.

Progress declined to attend the forum, but spokeswoman Julie Hans later told the Independent that the company takes safety seriously. She reported that Harris employs multiple fire protections, including automatic fire detectors, sprinkler systems and workers who patrol the plant in search of fire hazards. Hans noted that the NRC has set a deadline of 2015 for all Progress plants to come into compliance under the new system without compensatory measures, and Harris is expected to be the fleet’s first to complete the changes.

But those assurances don’t soothe the watchdogs, who are distributing postcards addressed to Progress Chairman and CEO Robert McGehee calling on the company to fix fire safety problems immediately. They are also asking local governments to pass resolutions urging prompt NRC enforcement action. Elected officials from across Orange County discussed doing just that at their semi-annual assembly held last week in Chapel Hill.

“We’ve got to use our voices to let people know what’s going on,” Chatham County community activist and N.C. WARN board member Margie Ellison urged the Pittsboro crowd. “Silence will kill us.”