published Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Japan lessons for TVA?

Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. The plant is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. The plant is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Nuclear experts say America needs to rethink at least two things: Are we planning for big enough earthquakes and natural disasters, and should we be contemplating using hotter and more dangerous fuels blended down from old nuclear warheads in nuclear power production.

“Reactors are basically designed to withstand an earthquake. They’re also designed to withstand tsunamis [or tornadoes or plane crashes], but they’re not really designed to handle both occurring on the same day,” said Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and former worker at TVA’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant and now director of the nuclear safety program at the Union for Concerned Scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit group that has no pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear position.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan now has four reactors in various stages of partial meltdown after a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami Friday.

The plant was designed for a stronger quake than its sister plant here — Browns Ferry near Athens, Ala. Both are the same design, a General Electric Mark 1 boiling-water reactor.

There is another parallel between the Japanese and TVA plants.

Nuclear experts say an experimental fuel from old warheads in at least one of the embattled Japanese reactors is much more volatile and dangerous, and TVA officials announced last year they hope to gain National Regulatory Commission approval to use that same fuel in Sequoyah and Browns Ferry by 2018.

MOX, the nickname for mixed oxide fuel, would save money and help defray ratepayer costs, TVA has said of the fuel tried and abandoned by Duke Energy.

Ed Lyman, the senior staff scientist for Union of Concerned Scientists, said the use of MOX generally increases the consequences of severe accidents in which large amounts of radioactive gas are released, compared to the same accident in a reactor using non-MOX fuel.

That could be particularly dangerous in reactors such those at Fukushima and Browns Ferry, because the Mark 1 design is unusually vulnerable to containment failure in the event of a core-melt accident, according to a study by Sandia National Laboratories. The study shows the Mark 1’s likelihood of containment failure in a core melt accident is nearly 42 percent.

With the mixed-oxide fuel onboard, “the number of latent cancer fatalities resulting from an accident could increase by as much as a factor of five for a full core of MOX fuel compared to the same accident with no MOX,” Lyman said.

In Japan, the No. 3 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi plant contains only about 6 percent MOX fuel, officials have said. Lyman said that’s fortunate for people nearby.

“I would estimate this could cause a roughly 10 percent increase in latent cancer fatalities if there were a severe accident with core melt and containment breach,” he said.

TVA’s Golden said MOX would be a cost saver.

“We’re also trying to provide service to our customers, which includes low cost,” he said. “But we will not use it if it’s obviously not safe.”

Louise Gorenflo, Tennessee Sierra Club representative on TVA’s recent energy planning exercise, said the utility industry as a whole and TVA may have a hard time taking the Japan lessons.

“I don’t know how open TVA is to learning,” Gorenflo said Tuesday. “It’s a human arrogance we have — the idea that we are willing to use a technology that requires nature to behave in a certain way. The reality is that nature does not bend to human engineering. The lesson is that our technology needs to fit nature.”

MORE: Local company made reactor vessels

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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soccerswimchick said...

Just for clarification, Fukushima Daiichi and Browns Ferry share a containment design, the Mark I. At Fukushima Daiichi, U1 is a model BWR-3; U2, 3, 4, and 5 are BWR-4 models; and U6 is a BWR-5. Browns Ferry U1, 2, & 3 are BWR-4 models.

March 16, 2011 at 4:37 a.m.
mrredskin said...

it's always great journalism when you reference somone from the Sierra Club...

when you entertain ideas from extremist groups like this, no one gives it any merit

March 16, 2011 at 7:41 a.m.
smdrlk said...

Why would the Times Free Press go ask someone like Gorenflo for her comments regarding Nuclear?? Why not ask an expert? Please note that we are not in an earthquake zone or anywhere close to Tsunamis, so please people do not worry. We do not need to rethink about where our power comes from....Nuclear is safe and inexpensive. Your bills are going to go out of the roof if we go wind and solar. Please do not worry about Nuclear and do not listen to Gorenflo!!

March 16, 2011 at 8:04 a.m.
jsgood35 said...


Come, on. I would expect this type of Mickey Mouse stuff from Channel One News.

March 16, 2011 at 8:12 a.m.
smdrlk said...

Well it is CNN.......

March 16, 2011 at 10:01 a.m.
mtngrl said...

smdrlk stated "Please note that we are not in an earthquake zone or anywhere close to Tsunamis, so please people do not worry"

Please get your head out of the sand. We are in an earthquake zone, just take a look at this map:

Notice the big yellow area over the entire Tennessee Valley. We have had earthquakes here, just not "the big one". Over to the left is also the New Madrid fault - the one that caused the Mississippi to run backwards and gave us Reelfoot Lake.

And while we are not in a Tsunami zone, every nuke plant we have is sitting right on the river (and in that yellow zone). The Tennessee river is now actually a long series of lakes created by TVA dams which are aging. Dams breaking along the river would have about the same result as a Tsunami on the power plants.

I am not trying to be all doom and gloom. We are in a relatively safer zone than Japan, but it's not totally safe as you seem to suggest.

March 16, 2011 at 10:33 a.m.
Abe said...

Ms. Sohn, you've fallen for a lie.

This statement is blatantly false: "The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit group that has no pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear position."

That's what the group says, yes.

Now go look at the UCS web site to see what it's position is on nuclear power. Its analysis is all anti-nuke: "Nuclear Power: A Resurgence We Can't Afford." "Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable Without Subsidies."

This link has its official position on nuclear power, and that position reads like those of anti-nuclear groups:

March 16, 2011 at 11:24 a.m.
Abe said...

There's no such thing as a "a General Electric Mark 1 boiling-water reactor."

GE makes the reactor, as another poster described above, and it makes a containment system for it, the Mark I. Calling it a Mark I reactor is like calling your car a Hurst car, because you have a Dodge with a Hurst shifter.

March 16, 2011 at 11:26 a.m.
bill2 said...

The map linked by mtngirl indicates that there's a 2% chance over a 50 year period of having an earthquake that exceeds 0.2g of peak ground acceleration. That's less than half the strength of the Japan quake, which measured over 0.5g. So yes, there's some risk of an earthquake in East Tennessee, but all nuclear facilities are designed to withstand seismic events.

The Japanese quake was less than 100 miles from the Fukushima plant. If there were a similar quake on the New Madrid fault, we're much further away (about 300 miles from Memphis), which would reduce the impact considerably. According to every credible account, the tsunami was the real source of the problems at the Fukushima plant. The plant response to the quake itself was as designed, and if not for the massive flood of seawater onto the site, there would not have been any safety concern at all.

As for a dam failure generating flooding that has "about the same result as a tsunami," perhaps you ought to be focusing your attention on the dams instead of the nuclear plants. If we have floods of the magnitude you seem to be expecting, you'll have more pressing issues to worry about than a bit of radiation.

March 16, 2011 at 1:17 p.m.
smdrlk said...

Hey mountain girl: Get your head out of the sand; there will be not 30-40 waves from this river. We are in no way in any danger, and like I said we are way better off with Nuclear Generation than wind or solar. If you don't like living close to a nuclear plant then move......not trying to be doom and gloom :-)

March 16, 2011 at 2:09 p.m.
smdrlk said...

Thanks bill2 for your technical comments to mountain girl. We are just trying to make people realize that our area is a lot safer than Japan. This country (which is an island set on the ring-of-fire) has huge earthquakes all of the time. Please don't be afraid of living here or around nuclear plants.

March 16, 2011 at 2:13 p.m.
mtngrl said...

Bill2 is actually agreeing with me. I specifically stated "We are in a relatively safer zone than Japan" which is what he is also saying. I did not say we would have 30-40 foot waves from this river, and I never said anything about being afraid of living around here.

My point is that your statement "We are in no way in any danger" is false. There is always a chance of something happening and to claim there is not is naive.

Bill2 stated the damage to the plant in Japan was due more to the massive flooding than from the quake, which is true. That is what I meant by "about the same result as a tsunami" - flood waters overcoming the plants and knocking out power.

Although Bill2, if this (however remote) possibility ever did happen, why should anyone only worry about the flood instead of "a bit of radiation"? It seems both would be a concern. Is anyone telling the Japanese to worry about the floods instead of the nuclear meltdown? or meltdown instead of the earthquake? Why is it either/or?

I did't say I was expecting any of this to happen, just not ignoring the possibilities like smdrlk is doing. The consequences of failure at a nuke facility warrant consideration of worse case senarios, don't they?

March 16, 2011 at 2:56 p.m.
jsgood35 said...

There is not any threat of tsunami, surge, or seiche waves caused from seismic or landslide events in this region, but their is a threat of higher energy costs if we lose nuclear.

When you speak of dam failures, you must be conjouring your fear and data from ridiculous pictures from movies. Concrete dams are built with a significant factor of safety to withstand the hydraulic forces. Even if there was a failure (breach) in a dam, the placement of critical safety facilities at nuclear plants are built above catastophic flood levels. So, don't worry about dam failures either unless you are in a boat fishing below one. Ignorance is a waste of paper towels.

March 16, 2011 at 3:01 p.m.
nucanuck said...

Blame the messenger and take comfort in the fact that there will be no problem here until there is.

March 16, 2011 at 3:10 p.m.
smdrlk said...

I agree to jsgood35, nucanuck and bill2. We are in no threat of tsunami's or floods and I'm still not worried about the nuclear plants.

March 16, 2011 at 3:21 p.m.
smdrlk said...

I pray for the people in Japan right now. They are going through the most catastrophic event in their lifetime. Please pray for each hungry, cold and lost person right now. Have a good night and be thankful we are in a good place.

March 16, 2011 at 3:31 p.m.
mtngrl said...

and I agree 100% with nucanuck :)

March 16, 2011 at 3:32 p.m.
smdrlk said...

Do not worry mountain tsunamis, no dam breaks and no earthquakes...we are safe ;-)

March 16, 2011 at 4:46 p.m.
mtngrl said...

So smdrlk, are you saying TVA should not spend the money on safety measures at all? no worries, right?

no earthquakes at all? There was a small one just a yr ago...

Here is more of an overview of this area:

Where do you get your info?

March 16, 2011 at 4:57 p.m.
dude_abides said...

So we've heard from all the TVA employees, families, etc. When Chernobyl went (different, I know) it spread it's pixie dust all over Europe, and we're discussing whether the local plants are a danger. Nobody has taken issue with the statements bout the mixed oxide fuel. Is that tree hugging propaganda too?

March 16, 2011 at 8:46 p.m.
chas9 said...

New maps (2010) from the NRC reflect new data from East Tennessee, approximately five times greater risk than previously thought. The NRC lists Sequoyah 1 & 2 as the fourth and fifth most dangerous reactors in the U.S. and Watts Bar 1 is 24th most dangerous (out of 104). NRC recommends considering "backfit" construction to improve earthquake protection. See NRC factsheet at and

March 16, 2011 at 10:38 p.m.
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