published Thursday, July 14th, 2011

TVA defends Browns Ferry after reports of equipment, operator failure

The containment door of the Unit 2 reactor, opened for maintenance is 7 feet thick of reinforced concrete.  Photo by Michael Mercier/ The Huntsville Times
The containment door of the Unit 2 reactor, opened for maintenance is 7 feet thick of reinforced concrete. Photo by Michael Mercier/ The Huntsville Times
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Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant had far more problems during recent tornadoes than TVA told the public after winds took down power lines and the plant went into automatic shutdown.

Tennessee Valley Authority statements after the late April tornadoes indicated everything functioned as it should when all three reactors shut down when the power they generated had nowhere to go because more than 300 monster power towers had been blown down.

But documents the utility is required to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission show reactor operators became distracted while manually operating cooling water flow to the Unit 1 reactor and water began boiling off faster than it was being replaced.

Additionally, a valve failed, a diesel-driven fire pump failed, the diesel-driven generator for the security station failed, the warning sirens were lost, power to the chemical lab was lost, and an emergency diesel generator keeping cool water flowing to one of three reactors shut down because of voltage fluctuations caused by a fluid leak after a brass fitting broke.

TVA’s nuclear spokesman Ray Golden said Wednesday TVA filed appropriate licensee reports to the NRC that appeared on the regulator’s public website, and he talked with a number of reporters in the days after the April tornadoes.

“I don’t think anywhere we use terms like ‘flawless’ or ‘perfect.’ We did use terms like ‘the equipment worked as designed’ and ‘the plant was safely shut down and cooled down,’” he said.

“All this said, given the multiple safety systems and the backup systems for pumping water, supplying power ... at no time was the plant, or the public, in danger,” he added.

Station blackout

Nuclear plants generate their own power, as well as power for communities. So when the plants blow a fuse — or go into “automatic shutdown” as the industry terms it — they are just as much without power as their customers are.

That also means the pumps don’t circulate cooling water to the reactors and the pools where spent — but still hot — radioactive fuel rods are stored. That’s why emergency diesel generators and backup four-hour batteries at the plant and other TVA nuclear plants are important.

Browns Ferry ran on diesel generators’ power for five days after the shutdown.

Those backup power systems also open and close valves for all types of equipment in the plants and run security systems.

When one of the generators failed at Browns Ferry, there was a temporary loss of shutdown cooling for one reactor for about 47 minutes, but the water level in the reactor never got near the boiling point, officials said.

So when the cacophony of systems began showing signs of trouble at Browns Ferry in late April and early May after the tornadoes, it’s little wonder there were distractions in the control room of Unit 1.

“Operators had taken manual control of the system, as required by the procedure, and ... got distracted, allowing water make-up to be less than it should have been,” Golden said.

The water in the reactor boiled low enough to trigger another shutdown alarm in the control room, but Golden said boiling water still covered the reactor fuel.

It was a problem with the operator, not generator failure, he said. When the alarm sounded, operators became undistracted and reset the control to add more “make-up water,” Golden said.

“Had the operator not taken that action, and water level continued to drop, it would have gotten to the next alarm set-point, which would have resulted in large volumes of water automatically being injected into the reactor with no operator action required. This ensures on-going safety,” Golden said.

But Golden acknowledged that human error was in play and operators had set the manual control too low. And he said the event, like all identified issues in the reports, was entered into the plant’s correction action program.

“Going forward, this event will be trained on in unit-specific control room simulators to enhance operator performance,” he said.

Assessing trouble

David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project, used to work at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, and he also has been a Nuclear Regulatory Commission training officer.

“I was a little surprised by the list of equipment that didn’t work,” Lochbaum said after reading TVA’s reports to the NRC. “The diesel generator for the security equipment not working was surprising. Fortunately, the plant was able to safely shut down despite all those problems.”

But he said he was most surprised by the operators’ distraction.

“That’s the only reason the operators are there,” he said. They need to make sure automated systems work.

“When the plant’s running, there are three key things to watch: power, pressure and [water] level. When the reactors shut down, the power goes to zero, so now you’re only left with two things — pressure and level. And they lost track of one of them.”

NRC typically does not comment on individual event reports, and the regulatory agency has not yet filed a response to TVA’s most recent reports.

Browns Ferry already is under heightened scrutiny by the NRC after a cooling water valve failed to operate during a routine manual shutdown in the fall and it came to light that the valve may not have functioned for about 18 months.

“Brown’s Ferry is already in the NRC doghouse, so to speak,” said Lochbaum. “When you keep having events like this one, it becomes harder to convince anybody that you can do better.”

Golden defended TVA and the plant.

“All of these events and issues did arise during the aftermath of the April 27 tornadoes, but overall the plant design, equipment and personnel responded well to the challenging event. As a continuous learning organization, we are always looking to improve our performance,” he said.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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dih2006 said...

A "continuous learning organization" is one that can afford to learn from it's mistakes. Unfortunately, nuclear power isn't one of those industries.

July 14, 2011 at 1:13 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

Coal-powered plants dump tons of mercury into the atmosphere that finds it way to the tuna you buy in the store and then into growing emryoes in pregnant mothers damaing brai and reproductive organs.Suh poer plants also dump arsenic and selenium into the air. They spew sulfur dioxide into the air that turns to acid rain; it dumps particulate into the air that impacs breathing. Both coal and nautral gas-fired plants pour carbon dioxide into the air with the oserved climatic disruption occurring.

The cost to remoe all these damaging toxic materials from fossil fuel power plants is enormous. The environmenal damage will persis for centuries. The damage to health and environment from existing fossil fuel generated power grossly exceeds any potential damage from power reactors; the worst accident involving nuclear power (3 Mile) resulted in no long-term or serious health consequences.

Photovoltaic power is limited by the required surface area and variation in sunlight, hydrogen has been a dream for at least half a century. Wind mills also are not feasible for large energy geneation. It costs mre to build and buy elecric autos than is saved in fuel. Simply, whether one likes it or not, there is no realistic alternative to either fossil fuel or nuclear power on the horizon.

To ignore or oppose nuclear power (a natural energy source with no toxic metals or carbon dioxide emission) because of fear ignores their proven safety record, lack of health impact and inhibits technical improvemens that could make them even more relaible and produce less or even almost no radioactive waste.

Nuclear power is a real way to achieve an environmentally friendly source of power. To argue agains it is to argue against the environmentalism.

July 14, 2011 at 7:48 a.m.
GarryMorgan said...

One of the problems with nuclear power is the misinformation and sheer propaganda espoused by the nuclear industry. An example of the misinformation is this statement by the above poster, "To ignore or oppose nuclear power (a natural energy source with no toxic metals or carbon dioxide emission) because of fear ignores their proven safety record, lack of health impact and inhibits technical improvements that could make them even more reliable and produce less or even almost no radioactive waste." Nuclear power has many misconceptions related to fuel, physics, health/safety and risks. Many of the inaccuracies and misconceptions are stated within the quoted paragraph.

1) Fuel, every nuclear reactor requires refined, highly radioactive manufactured fuel from Uranium. There is nothing natural about the finished manufactured radioactive atomic fuel to power the reactor. Once the nuclear fuel powers the reactor for 12 to 18 months it becomes so highly radioactive it is no longer suitable to power the reactor. It is then called spent, it is spent only to the point it is not useful for the reactor. 2) Physics, commercial nuclear reactors use a chain reaction to induce a controlled rate of nuclear fission in fissile material, releasing both energy and free neutrons. A reactor, which is contained in a vessel called a RPV or reactor pressure vessel, consists of an assembly of nuclear fuel (a reactor core), usually surrounded by a neutron moderator such as regular water, heavy water, graphite, or zirconium hydride, and fitted with mechanisms such as control rods that control the rate of the reaction of the core held within the reactor pressure vessel. Many things may go wrong, at all times the core of the reactor fuel must be kept cool by a constant supply of water to moderate and absorb the kinetic energy of the excited neutrons. There is zirconium cladding surrounding the Uranium reactor fuel, the uranium fuel is held in zirconium clad tubes and serves as an additional energy control material. When the water is no longer present to cool, either in the reactor pressure vessel or the spent fuel cooling pool, the fuel heats up, reaches temperatures which 'melts' the fuel and reacts with the zirconium holding the nuclear fuel in place, this reaction 'burns' the zirconium which produces hydrogen. When the hydrogen is contained within a building holding melting nuclear fuel-the results-BOOM a Fukushima disaster. Read more about the facts and a better way: http://www.matrr.org and see the video about the Browns Ferry style nuclear reactors of Fukushima at http://www.fairewinds.com/

Garry Morgan, Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team U.S. Army Medical Department, Retired.

July 14, 2011 at 11:51 a.m.
GarryMorgan said...

Part 2, there is more to these important facts. The deceit must be exposed, the nuclear industry and its puppet politicians care more about the nuclear industry's bottom line, citizen health and safety takes a back seat. This is a dangerous culture of deceit concerning nuclear materials and questions the reliability of corporations managing nuclear materials their managers and Federal Regulators. 3) Safety/Health, all nuclear reactor units are dangerous, there is the potential to kill and sicken thousands for decades if there is a nuclear accident. Not only sickness and death but massive property damage costing billions even trillions of dollars as a result of a nuclear accident such as occurred in Fukushima or Chernobyl is possible. Nuclear fuel releases tremendous amounts of radioactivity. To demonstrate the deceit and health consequences of the nuclear fuels process all one must do is look at the facts surrounding nuclear fuel workers. Tens of thousands have been sickened and killed from nuclear fuels, the dirty secret of the nuclear industry. Not only have there been deaths from the nuclear power industry, there is and has been tremendous suffering and death that is occuring today as a result of nuclear power plants fuels process. 4) Risks, the risks of nuclear power are tremendous to citizens. Not only are there health risks surrounding nuclear plants from low level radiation, there are the fuel process deaths and sickness. If the health consequences are not sufficient, there are the financial risks. Nuclear power is so expensive only the Federal Government can afford nuclear power either through federal corporations such as the TVA, seriously in-debt due to nuclear project failures, or nuclear welfare subsidies to the power industry. One nuclear reactor unit costs $8-10 billion dollars, Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric stated, "If you were a utility CEO ...You would never do nuclear. The economics are overwhelming." The risk factors are compounded due to storage requirements of the highly radioactive fuel, enhanced nuclear security and decommissioning costs. Ask yourself citizens, do you want to become a Fukushima style statistic? It can happen wherever there is a nuclear reactor.Read more about the facts and a better way: http://www.matrr.org and see the video about the Browns Ferry style nuclear reactors of Fukushima at http://www.fairewinds.com/

Garry Morgan, Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team U.S. Army Medical Department, Retired.

July 14, 2011 at 11:59 a.m.
nucanuck said...

Thank you Garry Morgan for taking the time and effort to share your knowledge about nuclear energy.

July 14, 2011 at 5:20 p.m.
JimHopf said...

In reponse to Gary. It is obvious that nuclear plants have no impact on public health under normal operation. Nobody living around nuclear plants gets more than 0.1% of what they get from natural background sources, and no correlation between background radiation levels and the incidence of any form of disease has ever been observed.

Furthermore, Fukishima, which is as bad as an accident can be at a nuclear plant (multiple core meltdowns), yet there have been no deaths (public or worker) and most experts agree that there will be no measurable health impacts.

US nuclear plant workers do not have cancer (or other disease) rates that are any higher than the general public. And OSHA statistics show that it is the safest heavy industry to work in.

Experts and scientific studies on the health risks and environmental impacts of various energy sources all agree that nuclear's environmental/health impacts are tiny compared to fossil fuels, and similar to renewables. US nuclear plants have never killed a member of the public, or had any measurable health impact, whereas coal plants are known to cause ~25,000 deaths every single year (according to EPA) and are the leading cause of global warming.

July 14, 2011 at 8:53 p.m.
lockedandloaded said...

Garry, you sir are an idiot. Other than the science behind how a pressure water reactor works, just about everything you said is completely wrong. Get your facts straight, and use a better website next time.

July 15, 2011 at 8:19 a.m.
GarryMorgan said...

Dear Jim, nuclear power plants do have an impact on public health, this has been proven in peer reviewed studies. I invite you to read this listing and view the facts for yourself: http://radioactivepoison.blogspot.com/ All facts are backed with references. The opinion you express is typical propaganda of the nuclear industry. Nuclear workers are dead, sick and dying. They have much higher rates of mortality than an average worker. The fuel cycle is deadly. The opinions you express are wrong and they reflect the propaganda and deceit pandered upon the public by the nuclear industry. Your reference to fossil fuels is no justification for the continued usage of radioactive atomic energy. By using your analogy I could very easily state that atomic power has killed millions since its first usage in 1945. The point is there is a better way to produce electrical power without the deadly consequences.

A Comprehensive Sustainable Energy Plan is needed and the target goal of 2050 to take our nation from a fossil fuel economy to a hydrogen economy is possible. To continue in our current direction will result in continued wars and extreme debt. We need to put Americans to work and Sustainable Energy and Energy Efficiency will accomplish that goal. The nuclear, oil and fossil fuel corporations care not for your life or that of future generations, they care for their bottom line here and now. Unfortunately there are many puppet politicians which receive hundreds of millions of the industries dollars which foster a continuation of the destruction of our nation. A National Sustainable Energy Program is an answer to our most perplexing domestic and international problems.

July 15, 2011 at 8:57 a.m.
GarryMorgan said...

I want to say thanks to the Chattanooga Times Free Press & Pam Sohn for this article and reporting the Browns Ferry Event. Your article is very important on several fronts.

It gives the TVA an opportunity to correct the initial deceit it pandered onto the public. The TVA stated, (paraphrased) "all functioned as it should during the Tornado Events of April 2011," when all did not function properly. This exposes the continuing problem with TVA's 'culture of deceit.' It is TVA's culture of public relations and management deceit that presents the most serious problems for the TVA at this time. A government organization which intentionally deceives the public is a government organization which builds distrust in the public.

When nuclear materials are involved, reliability and trust of management and engineering personnel are a requirement for nuclear programs. Break the trust and you will destroy what began as a noble program in 1933 and brought the Tennessee River Valley out of a dark age of financial insecurity and a lack of rural electricity.

Keep up the good work Times Free Press. TVA, if you are to remain a viable institution for our 21st century future please refrain from your continuous practice of deceit. Just tell the truth, you do not need a multi million dollar Washington law firm for TVA management to tell the truth. You do need that law firm to continuously cover your errors and deceit, think about it.

July 15, 2011 at 9:43 a.m.
SteveK9 said...

Garry in answer to Jim Hopf: 'By using your analogy I could very easily state that atomic power has killed millions since its first usage in 1945. '

How?

July 15, 2011 at 10:36 a.m.
GarryMorgan said...

Nuclear weapons, the atomic age began not for peaceful purposes but for weapons production.

July 15, 2011 at 11:13 a.m.
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