Air-sampling technology market goes nuclear

Some of nation’s nuclear power plants plan to use early warning smoke detection systems to reduce fire risk
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Thursday, January 6, 2011

NORWELL, Mass.—About half of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants plan to update their fire protection programs based on NFPA 805, a new set of risk-based fire protection standards for nuclear reactors, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced this week.

The switch is expected to generate increased revenue for companies like Xtralis that make and/or supply fire products to the highly-regulated nuclear industry.

That’s because to meet the new standards, which reactors can choose whether or not to adopt, many of them are expected to install air-sampling smoke detection systems, a technology designed to give early warning of the potential for fire by detecting minute amounts of smoke in the air.

Xtralis, whose products include VESDA, a brand of very early warning aspirating smoke detection solutions, sees the move by the nuclear reactors to comply with NFPA 805 as a good market opportunity, according to Steven Joseph, director of market development-Americas for Xtralis.

“It’s right up our alley. Part of what we do is mission critical types of facilities,” Joseph told Security Systems News. He works out of Portland, Ore., but the U.S. headquarters for Xtralis, a global company with about 400 employees, is based here.

He said Xtralis’ products are suited to both commercial and industrial applications, and already are in use in19 nuclear power plants in Canada and the United States.

Also, Joseph added, “we pretty much own the market.”

The global market for aspirations products is about $100 million. Joseph said that Xtralis has about 51 percent of the global market and 80 percent of the U.S. market.

And now it appears that many of the nation’s nuclear reactors will be in the market for such technology to reduce their fire-risk rating under the new standards.

Joseph said using the technology “allows the plant to have a lower risk factor so when they submit their [license] application to the NRC, they have a better opportunity to have their license renewed.”

In December, the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant became the first plant in the nation to fully transition to a new fire protection program based on NFPA 805.

“We believe the move to [the risk-based] NFPA 805 makes sense: It focuses on areas of the plant where fire can do the most significant damage to operations,” Julia Milstead, spokeswoman for the Progress Energy plant New Hill, N.C., said in an email. She said the previous standards were “more of a one-size-fits-all approach for all plants, regardless of significant differences in their design, vintage and layout.”

The Shearon Harris plant replaced human fire patrols with an air sampling fire detection system supplied by Safe Fire Detection, based in Monroe, N.C.

Milstead described how the system works: “Detectors continuously pull air samples from electrical cabinets that contain safe shutdown components for the plant. The system uses cloud chamber technology to detect any combustible particles in those cabinets produced from off-gassing … The incipient detector systems enables us to detect the potential for fire hours, even days, before a person can actually smell or see smoke.”

Ron Robertson, president of Safe Fire Detection, which has 75 employees and supplies specialty fire protection products around the world, said the use of such air sampling technology is “better for the whole nuclear industry and better for us.” His company hopes to supply more power plants with the technology, he said.

On Jan. 3, the NRC issued an announcement that the Duke Energy Oconee Nuclear Station in Seneca, S.C. was granted permission to transition to the new NFPA 805 standard.

The NRC said that an additional 46 reactors at 29 sites have also said they plan to adopt the NFPA 805 approach. The NRC also said that it “expects other U.S. nuclear power plants will consider adopting this approach once the industry gains experience in implementing the standard.”

The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) issued the standard 10 years ago, in 2001, according to the NRC. However, the NRC only incorporated it in 2004 after extensive examination and input from the public and fire safety community. The Shearon Harris plant and the Oconee plants volunteered in 2005 to lead the industry’s pilot implementation of the new standards.

Nuclear power plants can choose whether to adopt the NFPA 805 standards or employ alternative fire protection program measures to meet NRC licensing requirements.

Milstead said the Shearon Harris plant has been working on the transition for more than six years and made a full switch to its new fire program in late December 2010.

Now that Oconee has NRC permission to pursue the new approach, it has 24 months to implement it, said plant spokeswoman Sandra Magee. At that plant, Magee said, she is not aware of plans to add an air sampling smoke detection system. “We’re adding more detectors to our existing system,” she said. “We’re not going to change.”

However, Joseph believes that an interim NRC position paper on incipient fire detection systems “provides some clarity” on how well they work, and is causing owners of nuclear power plants “to seek out these systems.”

Nuclear industry watchdogs have been critical of the Shearon Harris plant for substituting an automatic system for human fire patrols on round-the-clock shifts, sniffing for smoke and looking for fire hazards, according to news reports.

But Joseph and Robertson said the air sampling technology increases safety by detecting incipient fires before they lead to a crisis. “It’s the best thing that could happen to the plant,” Joseph said.

Milstead said, “While we are doing away with the fire watch patrols as compensatory measures, our operators will continue to make their rounds in the plant, and we will continue to have fire watch monitors for specific job activities, [such as] soldering.”