The 1970s were a time of increased nuclear technology and increased nuclear fear. The “disaster that wasn’t” at Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Alabama on March 22, 1975 heightened the atomic anxiety of the time and changed the way the United States Government regulated nuclear safety. It also sparked a dialogue in the media and among American citizens about the potential hazards of Nuclear Power Plants. After the fire, several news outlets focused on what could have happened at Brown’s Ferry instead of the actual events of the March 22nd fire. In addition, comics and movies illustrated and produced in the late 1970s highlighted the potential doomsday effects of nuclear meltdowns. The national government’s fear of the possible consequences of nuclear plants also grew, and as a result, Congress passed new safety regulations in the hope that an accident like Brown’s Ferry did not occur again. Although no lives were lost and no radiation was emitted during the fire, the media and government framed the fire at Brown’s Ferry as a disaster because it created an atmosphere of fear regarding nuclear power.
On March 22, 1975, employees at Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Athens, Alabama were doing regular maintenance in the plant’s Cable Spreading Room1. The workers were pulling wires from the Reactor Building, located on one side of the Cable Spreading Room, to the Control Room, located directly above the Cable Spreading Room. In order to connect the wires from the Reactor Building to the Control Room, the workers had to cut an opening through the fire stop walls separating the Cable Spreading Room from the Reactor Building and Control Room. After the workmen successfully connected the wires between the two rooms, they resealed the opening in the wall with pillow-type foamed polyurethane, a type of foam cushioning often used to insulate homes2. Two workmen then used candles to check the resealed section of the wall for air leaks into the Reactor Building. The workers observed the candles to see if the flame would flicker, a sign that air was passing through the polyurethane barrier. While the workers were examining the recently sealed hole, the candle flame was drawn into a crack in the polyurethane, igniting the pillow-like material, which in turn ignited the flammable plastic insulated control cables. No fire extinguishers were immediately available in the Cable Spreading Room, and after unsuccessfully attempting to extinguish the fire themselves, the workmen called emergency services. The emergency service workers also had difficulty extinguishing the fire, which prompted the crew to activate the total flooding system. The flooding system, however, experienced several malfunctions, and therefore proved ineffective. As time passed, the fire grew stronger and the possibility of a nuclear meltdown became more probable. Working with extreme urgency, the emergency responders next attempted to control the fire using the Carbon Dioxide system; this tactic proved successful. The CO2 system controlled the fire at its source and prevented a large-scale disaster from occurring.
Even though the fire was controlled at its source, it continued to pose a threat. Before the CO2 extinguished the fire in the Cable Spreading Room, the fire spread to the Reactor Building, which presented more problems for firefighters and plant operators. At 2 P.M. fire fighters abandoned their efforts to extinguish the fire in the control room, and plant operators decided to shut down units one and two. However, when the plant operators tried to shut down the unit two reactor, they found the emergency cooling system didn’t work, yet another setback. Eventually the plant operators shut down both reactors and looked for another method to put out the fire in the Reactor Buildings and control room.Throughout the day the Athens Fire Chief informed the Plant Superintendent that the fire was not a chemical fire3. The Fire Chief recommended the use of water to extinguish the fire, but the Plant Superintendent and his superiors initially were not receptive of the idea3. It was not until 6 P.M., nearly six hours after the fire started, that the Plant Superintendent authorized fire fighters to use water on the fire in the Reactor Building. Within fifteen minutes the fire was essentially out1.