published Saturday, October 8th, 2011

TVA, NRC to work together to boost safety at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant

Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is near Athens, Ala.
Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is near Athens, Ala.
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Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said NRC and TVA will join forces to get Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant operating more safely.

"We will work with TVA and put the plant back in the condition we want -- that everybody wants -- it to be in," Jaczko said Friday in a telephone news conference.

TVA spokesman Ray Golden said Jaczko's message was "about what we expected. There have been a number of performance issues not completely addressed at Browns Ferry, and we'll use this opportunity to accelerate the pace of change," Golden said.

Jaczko made the telephone conference after he and nuclear proponent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., toured the plant that in May was issued a "red" rating from the NRC. The red rating signifies "high safety significance" issues found by NRC inspections and reviews.

Browns Ferry received the rating after a reactor-core cooling valve failed last fall when the unit 1 reactor was shut down for refueling and maintenance. Tennessee Valley Authority cooled the reactor with an alternate cooling system that was supposed to be dedicated only to fire safety.

Shortly after the valve failure, NRC found that the valve may have been inoperable for about 18 months. The valve has since been replaced and the reactor is operating again.

  • photo
    U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander speaks during a press conference in this file photo.
    Photo by Jenna Walker /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"Red" is the worst level given by the NRC for an operating plant. The next level is NRC-forced shutdown, which the NRC has never ordered.

But Jaczko didn't rule out that possibility following his Friday tour. Instead, he said the NRC would make any decision about shutting down the plant "if and when we find additional challenges."

"We have not made any determination that they are not ultimately able to operate safely," he said.

Alexander said he was reassured by the oversight of NRC and the fix-it attitude of TVA officials.

"I'm not concerned about the safety of our nuclear plants," he said. "It's reassuring to me that when a problem occurs, the commission whose job it is to make sure we're safe and TVA itself jumps on top of it to fix it."

Jaczko said he arranged his tour of Browns Ferry because of the recent problems there and because Browns Ferry's design is similar to Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, which has been in nuclear crisis since mid-March. The Japan plant's reactors and spent fuel-rod pools reached varying stages of meltdown after the plant was damaged by a 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami.

"One of the things I was looking for as I went through the [Browns Ferry] plant was the condition of equipment," Jaczko said. "And it's clear there are some areas where there's room for improvement."

Golden said TVA will apply what is learned from the scrutiny at Browns Ferry to its other operating nuclear plants -- Sequoyah just north of Chattanooga and Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn.

The "red" finding at Browns Ferry prompted NRC to begin a series of three inspections at Browns Ferry in September. On Monday, the NRC met with TVA and identified several specific problems that they found in the first two-week inspection.

Primary among those problems were concerns with the plant's in-service testing program, as well as multiple examples of corrective actions where TVA "lacked rigor" investigating the cause of a problem or simply made repairs without determining the cause.

A second round of NRC inspections began this week, and they are expected to continue next week.

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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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