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Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant

March 22, 1975 was the first nuclear power plant incident to put the nation in peril. The Alabama power plant experienced a fire that disabled the core cooling systems and could have led to a boil-off of the cooling water and subsequent meltdown of the nuclear fuel.

The fire started when two electrical technicians were attempting to seal an air leak at a wall opening where the electrical control cabling that runs between the control room equipment and the Unit 1 and Unit 2 reactors. The test for leakage in the foam rubber insulation was to hold a lighted candle to the area and watch for the affects on the flame of any infiltrating air. They found some infiltrating air, but it sucked the flame into the opening igniting the foam insulation.

Immediate attempts to put out the fire were unsuccessful. The technicians in their zeal to extinguish the flames failed to do the prescribed procedure and set off the fire alarm before attempting to put out the fire. They used several pressurized carbon dioxide extinguishers and several dry chemical extinguishers to put out the fire. These types of extinguishers were not appropriate to fighting the insulation fire. The Athens, AL fire chief arrived on the scene within ten minutes of the alarm and had to stand down because this was a nuclear facility and his department had no jurisdiction. While the fire burned away successively more vital systems, he watched and told them to use water to put out the flames. He advised that this was not an electrical fire but a Type C fire involving dry combustible materials and water was the correct way to fight it.

Finally, the facility managers acquiesced and water was used to put out the fire in about 20 minutes.

Three Mile Island nuclear power facility 29 years after the reactor leak that shut down the one reactor.

This opening in the wall through which the cables passed was the critical link in the control system. Through it passed the primary and back up control systems as well as all the indicator wiring for both reactors. In other words, the architects of this complex put all the eggs in one basket and set the plant on the path to failure right from the start. Once again, the simple nudge of the Principle of Imminent Collapse started what could have been what the China Syndrome has come to mean in the mind of Americans.

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