published Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Nuclear Regulatory Commission extends Browns Ferry plant's fire fix deadline

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.
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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has extended the time for TVA to meet a new fire protection requirement at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.

NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said TVA asked for an extension as it plows through the reviews and policy changes to bring Browns Ferry out from under a "red" safety finding NRC leveled against the utility last year.

Last week, Preston Swafford, TVA executive vice president and chief nuclear officer, told NRC that TVA is beginning to see improvements "but we're not there yet."

TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said Tuesday that in March 2009, TVA committed to adopt the new requirement for fire protection and submit a license amendment to the NRC by March 2012.

But in late 2011, TVA determined the original March 2012 date for the license amendment required adjustment.

"TVA has been in discussions with the NRC and agreed to implement additional fire-related modifications as well as a March 2013 license amendment submission," Bradley said.

The NRC issued "a confirmatory order" adopting the March 2013 date "and extending the enforcement discretion for some fire protection issues," he said.

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 1974 started a fire that disabled safety systems.

And the plant's "red" finding is somewhat related to its fire protection.

To comply with industry-wide NRC regulations crafted after the Browns Ferry fire, TVA had opted to dedicate one of the dual reactor coolant pumping systems for fire protection.

In late 2010, a failed reactor-core cooling valve was found "stuck closed" at the plant. When reactor operators realized the problem, they used a second, "redundant" water line, according to TVA.

That second line was the fire protection line, so if there had been a fire as well as a need to cool the reactor in shutdown there could have been a larger problem, according to officials.

TVA and NRC said the stuck valve could have been inoperable for as much as 18 months, and NRC said TVA should have been performing better tests and processes to check equipment. Because of that failure, NRC placed Browns Ferry under the red finding.

Browns Ferry's red rating -- the highest safety flag raised by NRC -- is only the fifth issued nationwide in the past decade, according to NRC.

Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at 423-757-6346 or psohn@timesfreepress.com.

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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