published Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Meeting participants raise concerns, frustrations about TVA's Browns Ferry nuclear plant

The TVA Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala.
The TVA Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Story so far

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on June 22 told TVA its reactor operators at Browns Ferry did not understand and know how to implement 5-month-old NRC and TVA procedures to safely shut down reactors in the event of fire.

And TVA trainers didn't know how either.

NRC placed Browns Ferry under another safety flag and scheduled a meeting occurred Wednesday.

Fast fact

The Browns Ferry plant, located near Athens, Ala., is known in the industry as the site where a worker using a candle to check for air leaks in 1975 started a fire that disabled safety systems.

It was that fire that prompted NRC's new regulations, which had been suggested by the regulator but not finalized until Sept. 13, 2011.

Source: NRC, Union of Concerned Scientists

TVA officials told nuclear regulators Wednesday that they continue to try to get things right at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in North Alabama.

"We are not here to contest the violation," Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant Vice President Keith Polson told the NRC about Browns Ferry operators and trainers failing a simulation exercise on safe shutdown in the event of a fire.

In June the NRC gave Browns Ferry a new "white" safety finding and violation noting that TVA had had five months to learn a set of new procedures.

"We've made it a clear focus to reduce fire risk, and we had a positive effort going," Polson said. "But we didn't execute it well."

But Alabama and Tennessee listeners to the two-hour meeting at NRC's Southeast region headquarters in Atlanta told the federal utility and regulator they were frustrated at hearing TVA's same reasons for performance problems and violations.

After listening to conversation about a Browns Ferry corrective action program on fire training being closed without resolution, Don Safer, board chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council, took both TVA and NRC to task.

"You know, procedures like this are an indication of the seriousness of nuclear power. We don't have meetings like this about coal plants or gas-fired plants and certainly not for solar plants. ... But after 30-something years of operating this plant, the fact that you still don't have it right doesn't give me confidence," he said to TVA officials.

"My question," he said to NRC officials, "is why should we have any confidence in these plants, and why have you not just shut them down?"

Browns Ferry's new "white" finding is the fourth safety flag raised at TVA's three operating nuclear plants in just over a year.

NRC assigns four colors -- green, white, yellow and red -- to its inspection findings. Green is safe. White is the lowest safety flag. Yellow signifies moderate safety concerns. Red designates the highest level of concern. The only level behind red is an NRC order to shut down a plant, NRC spokesmen have said.

In addition to the white finding, Brown's Ferry remains under last year's red finding for a faulty stuck cooling valve that went unnoticed for 18 months.

A few months later, TVA also was white-flagged at both Sequoyah and Watts Bar.

The white finding at Sequoyah -- for excessive unplanned reactor shutdowns in an 18-month period -- has been lifted, according to TVA and NRC.

The white finding at Watts Bar was made for a security problem that neither TVA nor NRC would disclose.

At Wednesday's Browns Ferry meeting, discussions indicated "fast-tracked" programs might have distracted the plant's leadership from corrective-action problems and more timely procedure writing.

TVA's nuclear operations chief Preston Swafford told NRC he puts some of the blame on himself.

"A lot of fast-track projects started in my office. So the first person that had to change was me," he said.

He also told the NRC he also is working with Polson to determine if the plant's leadership tier needs additional people because Browns Ferry is a three-reactor site.

He said TVA is making progress with efforts to address standards and "misdirections" in the control room, but he added:

"We not there yet. It's a journey."

Scottsboro, Ala., resident Gretel Johnson asked for a list of all the corrective action program entries initiated at Browns Ferry in recent years.

NRC officials said that would be "many thousands of pages," and they assured her they are working to "hone in" on any patterns there.

She reminded NRC officials that TVA had mentioned it had begun a new program with corrective actions, making sure that closing one required more than just one signature. Perhaps just since the new program had begun they could provide a list, she said.

When NRC officials said that would still be thousands of pages, she persisted.

"Then how about a list just of the ones that have occurred more than once?" she countered.

Officials said they would get back to her.

NRC took no action at the meeting, but told watchers and telephone listeners that action on the newest violation likely will come in about two weeks.

Lou Zeller, an anti-nuclear activist with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, ticked off a number of violations he recalled NRC had levied against Browns Ferry.

"If this were drivers on a highway, they would have their licenses suspended," Zeller said. "What does it take for NRC to suspend or revoke a nuclear operator's license in light of repeated violations? It should be done here."

One NRC official told listeners that's why NRC and TVA are meeting.

"And a lot of the discussion you're hearing and things you see the [TVA] and NRC doing is a recognition of the potential risk of operating these facilities. All of us on regulatory side would not hesitate to bring up any issue if we thought it affected public safety. And if we thought it was serious enough to shut down a facility, we would go down that path," 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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