published Thursday, July 18th, 2013

NRC cites TVA again at nation's worst-rated nuclear plant

TVA's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is located near near Athens, Ala.
(AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
TVA's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is located near near Athens, Ala. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
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NRC citations against TVA

In the past three years, regulators have cited all seven of TVA's operating and nuclear construction sites for safety violations:

* Browns Ferry Unit 1: Red finding, the most severe citation, issued in October 2010 for failing to detect problem in key safety system.

* Browns Ferry Unit 2: Two white findings, the lowest of four levels of citations, for failure to implement requirements of plant modifications and engineering change controls.

* Browns Ferry Unit 3: White finding in 2012 for failing to implement required engineering changes.

* Sequoyah Units 1 and 2: White finding issued this spring for not locating some safety systems above potential flood levels, and a white finding in 2011 for an excessive number of reactor trips.

* Watts Bar 1: Yellow finding in the winter of 2013 and a white finding in 2012 for a variety of safety violations.

* Watts Bar 2: NRC proposed $70,000 civil penalty for not verifying the nuclear readiness of some equipment installed in the unit.

Source: Nuclear Regulatory commission

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Should TVA take strong action to solve its nuclear plant problems?

For the ninth time in three years, the Tennessee Valley Authority is being cited by federal regulators for violating safety standards at one of its reactors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission already has given TVA the worst rating in the country at its Browns Ferry nuclear plant.

Now it is proposing a lesser citation at the same plant for an incident in December when the reactor tripped. The NRC plans a meeting Wednesday in Atlanta to review the Dec. 22 shutdown of the unit, which has been blamed on operator error when power was being restored on the Unit 2 reactor.

"Even though the unit was safely shut down and there was no threat to workers or people living near the plant, the NRC has preliminarily determined that the finding is white, meaning it has low to moderate safety significance," NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said Wednesday.

TVA asked for the hearing to argue against the citation, which could lead to further safety actions by NRC inspectors. NRC claims a plant operator at Browns Ferry failed to follow proper procedures, causing the main steam isolation valve to close and trip the unit.

The disclosure of the latest apparent violation at Browns Ferry comes after a 23-member NRC team conducted one of the most extensive inspections of any plant this spring. Afterward, the team decided against lifting the red finding for Browns Ferry Unit 1 until TVA makes further improvements.

A red finding is the most serious violation short of ordering the plant to shut down.

David Lochbaum, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientist and a former employee of both the Browns Ferry plant and the NRC, said the latest finding reflects both problems at TVA's oldest plant and heightened oversight by regulators.

"Browns Ferry is the only plant in the country with a red finding, and one of the things you get for that placement is a lot more NRC inspectors showing up at your doorstep," he said. "TVA is getting more than twice as many inspection hours as other plants -- something they earned because of their performance problems. Because you have more eyes looking at the plant, you tend to uncover more problems."

But TVA also has discovered problems in the past year at its newer plants in Tennessee, which have a different design than the older, three-unit plant at Browns Ferry. The NRC cited the utility last year for failing to detect for years that key safety equipment at the Sequoyah and Watts Bar plants were not built above the potential flood level in the event of a dam break or other disaster.

TVA discovered the miscalculation while figuring its flood risk at the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in North Alabama, which it is proposing to finish.

NRC inspectors also discovered that TVA was not adequately verifying the quality of nuclear components being installed in the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn. The NRC has proposed a $70,000 fine for those violations.

Lochbaum said the record number of citations shows the relatively poor performance by TVA's nuclear operations compared with other utilities. But it also demonstrates that regulators are doing their job to enforce safety standards, he said.

TVA announced last week it is hiring Joseph Grimes, a 30-year utility veteran, to replace Preston Swafford as chief nuclear officer.

Grimes, who will join TVA in September, is currently senior vice president of engineering and technical services for Exelon Nuclear, the nation's largest nuclear utility, with 17 reactors at 10 nuclear power plants.

TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said the utility is improving its performance at Browns Ferrry and other nuclear plants, as noted in the most recent inspection by NRC officials.

“TVA is working hard – and making progress – towards addressing regulatory issues, increasing safety margins, and achieving continuous improvement at all our nuclear plants,” he said. “The health and safety of our staff and the public is the top priority at all TVA nuclear plants.”

Regarding the December 2012 trip at the Browns Ferry plant, Bradley said an operator inadvertently de-energized the reactor protection system during a maintenance test of an emergency diesel generator.

“TVA launched an immediate investigation of this event and determined the cause was a human performance error by the operator and developed corrective actions to prevent recurrence,” Bradley said. “TVA has also conducted a more detailed analysis of this event and is developing additional actions that will be included in the station’s Integrated Improvement Plan.”

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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