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Japan's nuclear crisis sparks reviews of U.S. power plants

Duke Energy's nuclear power plants aren't equipped with firefighting equipment that is designed to withstand earthquakes, according to plant inspections launched after the Japanese nuclear crisis.

But then, they're not required to be. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission initiated the inspections to see how the 104 U.S. reactors would respond to Fukushima Dai-ichi-style events that they weren't designed to survive.

The inspections looked at the plants' ability to respond to large fires or explosions, loss of power and flooding, including fires or flooding after earthquakes. The NRC posted results last weekend.

Many of the findings appeared minor. The battery failed on a portable pump at Duke's McGuire plant on Lake Norman. Foam seals weren't coated with sealant at the Catawba plant near York, S.C.

Inspectors found problems with "significant potential" to hamper response under some scenarios at Duke's Oconee plant, near Seneca, S.C. Among them: water pumps failing to start; pumps with plugs incompatible with available electrical outlets; and the potential failure of a backup indicator of water levels in spent fuel pools.

All three Duke plants - and Progress Energy's Harris plant near Raleigh - shared one trait. Most of their firefighting equipment was not designed to function after an earthquake that the plants themselves were engineered to survive.

"The licensee recognized the vulnerability that many of the fire suppression components would not function" (following an earthquake), the Oconee report said. "However, plans and supporting agreements were in place for offsite support to provide fire fighting capabilities."

Duke spokeswoman Rita Sipe said the plants would rely on layers of backups, from neighboring emergency responders to portable pumps, to help respond after an earthquake. Duke reviewed all its emergency plans and equipment after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

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