published Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant isn't ready to inspect

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  • photo
    Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Ala., is seen from above.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

TVA's nuclear operations chief told officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Agency on Tuesday that Browns Ferry is not ready yet for a third and final special NRC inspection to clear its "red" safety rating.

"TVA is beginning to see results [with improvement efforts], but we're not there yet," said Preston Swafford, TVA executive vice president and chief nuclear officer. "We will not invite an inspection team in until have confidence we are ready. ... I can't even give you a ballpark estimate now when that will be."

NRC's regional administrator, Victor McCree, said after the meeting that the federal regulatory agency will take that answer in stride.

"I wouldn't say that we're disappointed. It is what it is, and our major focus is with the safety of the plant," McCree said. "TVA recognizes their performance has not been as good as it could be. ... It takes time."

NRC placed Browns Ferry in a "red" rating last year after NRC and TVA determined in October 2010 that a valve intended to help cool the reactors in an emergency had not been functional in the previous 18 months.

The NRC's red rating is issued when NRC officials believe a plant has issues of "high safety significance."

NRC already has made two sets of follow-up inspections on its schedule. But by NRC policy, TVA will set the final inspection schedule.

Swafford agreed that it takes time to turn around years of safety and operations cultures.

He said when the problems became apparent, he assembled a team of experts in turning around problem plants -- from previous NRC red flags around the country -- and they began working to revamp policies at every level.

"We're going to start at the procedure level," Swafford said. "Then we'll work on the execution. Now we have to execute."

He stressed in the meeting that accountability will be the next step.

"I've been at the mindset that there's no point stressing accountability for procedures we know will change. Holding people accountable to inferior products isn't fair to the employees," Swafford said.

But he said the review and planning are about done, and now changes will begin. Then the utility will test the new systems, and when it is confident in them, TVA will invite the NRC to make the final inspection.

In making the red flag finding, NRC officials said TVA should have been performing tests and had other safety-check systems in place to have determined the problem sooner.

There had been no incidents in which the valve's work was needed, TVA said, and the problem was discovered in a routine shutdown.

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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