published Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Regulators remove negative findings against TVA nuclear plants

Steam rises from the cooling tower of the Unit 1 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn.
Steam rises from the cooling tower of the Unit 1 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

TVA's nuclear power program, rated among the country's worst two years ago after regulators discovered safety problems at all three of the utility's plants, is on the mend.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is lifting negative findings against each of TVA's operating nuclear plants this month after inspections late last year showed TVA has resolved questions over potential flood risks to the riverfront power plants.

Regulators on Wednesday night said they are removing both "yellow" and "white" warning flags thrown against TVA's Watts Bar plant near Spring City. That comes after NRC also agreed over the past couple of weeks to lift a negative "red" flag at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama and lifted a "white" flag given the Sequoyah plant near Soddy-Daisy.

TVA President Bill Johnson said TVA's nuclear program is improving and has set a goal of being a top quartile performing utility within the next several years.

"Our operational performance in nuclear has not been as good as it should be -- that's obvious from any indicator that you look at," he said. "But we are making progress as you can begin to see by our results."

TVA is investing tens of millions of dollars to protect its nuclear plants on the Tennessee River from potential floods. The March 2011 tsunami in Japan that damaged the Fukushimi nuclear plant showed the potential problems from unexpected floods and TVA's own enhanced computer models have uncovered greater risks than previously considered from dam breaks on the Tennessee River.

"Over the past couple of years, TVA has put a lot of emphasis on this and we've invested a lot of money in the plants to get the reliability of their equipment in shape so they can run well," Johnson said. "What we need to focus on now is our operational behavior. Going forward, our goal is to be thought of as one of the better fleets in the country."

In trying to license its unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama four years ago, TVA discovered that some of its flood risk assessments used to license the Watts Bar, Sequoyah and Browns Ferry nuclear plants were inadequate. TVA has had to install new waterproof seals and doors and raise the flood protection levels for key equipment at the plants to ensure that the plants would operate safely in the event of a dam break and maximum flood.

John T. Carlin, the site vice president at Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, said the problems "were professionally embarassing" but pushed TVA to improve training, procedures and equipment.

"It's made us operate safer and better," Carlin said following a public hearing with the NRC this week.

Even nuclear power critics credit TVA for improving the way it operates its plants.

"I do think TVA is improving, but we're still carefully monitoring these plants," said Sandra Kurtz, an anti-nuclear activist for the Sierra Club and the Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team. "These are still very old and very dangerous reactors and these ice condensor reactors (at Seqouyah and Watts Bar) are not very robust to begin with so we're extra concerned about their operations."

As TVA improves its operating nuclear plants, the utility also is preparing to request an operating license for a second reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant -- the first in the U.S. in two decades. Despite initial delays and cost overruns, Johnson said the project is now on schedule toward being finished in 2015.

There are potential problems when plant equipment is tested and begins operating, Johnson said.

"But I think these risks are very well understood, well planned for and we have mitigation in place so I think we have this project in pretty good shape," he said.

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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