TVA plans more nuclear openness to counter worries

TVA plans more nuclear openness to counter worries

January 14th, 2012 by Pam Sohn in News

Tennessee Valley Authority technicians inspect the top of a fuel rod assembly before moving it into storage on the refueling floor of the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant on Friday.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, recognizing the difficulty of producing nuclear power for a population skittish after Japan's 2011 reactor disaster and increasingly wary of the dangers, is taking steps to "demystify" the process.

"Fukushima is still a work in progress, but we can assure you we're not going to let that tragedy go by without learning from it and making what I think is a safe industry even safer," said Ray Golden, TVA's manager of nuclear communications.

"We want to demystify nuclear power," he said.

TVA began that process Friday as media members watched workers unload and prepare new nuclear fuel rods, each holding about 300 thumbnail-sized pellets of 4 percent uranium 235, for an upcoming refueling at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy.

The utility, with a plan to increase nuclear power and energy efficiency in coming years while decreasing the use of coal power, also wants to make a case for nuclear energy.

Making power with nuclear energy has been around for nearly 60 years, and in that time there have been three significant accidents: Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in Russia and Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, where a devastating triple meltdown in March occurred after an earthquake and tsunami.

"With each one [accidents] of them, we are learning," Golden said.

The Tennessee Valley Authority says it is going to be more open about the consequences of making electricity with its six reactors at the Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Browns Ferry nuclear plants.

This week and next, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is holding meetings to discuss probable new regulations for the nuclear power industry. Those new rules, cast in the aftermath of Fukushima, likely will cost lots of money. They could involve seismic refits, flooding refits, filters for venting radioactive hydrogen in emergencies and improving instrumentation for spent fuel pools.

REFUELING SEQUOYAH


Each fuel assembly is 264 fuel rods

Sequoyah will replace 86 of those fuel assemblies

Source: TVA

The NRC expects to issue the first post-Fukushima accident orders to nuclear power plants on March 11, the first anniversary of the disaster, according to an NRC official.

NRC has accelerated the schedule for requiring new protections for the 104 U.S. reactors because of language in this year's appropriations bill from Congress, recommendations from an advisory committee and other issues, said Martin Virgilio, NRC deputy executive director for reactor and preparedness programs, according to The Associated Press.

Paul Simmons, plant manager of Sequoyah, said uranium is the most concentrated energy source in the world, and a filled reactor can generate enough power to run 650,000 homes for four years before it runs out of fuel.

TVA must refresh a only a third of the fuel in each reactor about every 18 months, Simmons said.

Golden said each fuel rod holds 4 percent uranium 235 - the equivalent of 150 gallons of oil or 2,000 pounds of coal.

"If this was a coal burning plant, you'd need 100 [rail] cars of coal every day," he said of Sequoyah.

The up side, he said, is that the plant is not consuming all that coal that creates air pollution and carbon in the atmosphere.

"The down side, of course, is the radioactive waste that is left behind and what we have to do to deal with that safely and securely," Golden said.

Wall Street investors, like the public, are also skittish of nuclear power.

NRC has accelerated the schedule for requiring new protections for the 104 U.S. reactors because of language in this year's appropriations bill from Congress, recommendations from an advisory committee and other issues, said Martin Virgilio, NRC deputy executive director for reactor and preparedness programs.

On Friday, John Carlin, vice president at Sequoyah, also addressed the tritium found at spiked levels in a new monitoring well at the plant.

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of the element hydrogen. It is produced both naturally in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays strike nitrogen molecules in the air, and during nuclear weapons explosions, or as a byproduct in reactors producing electricity.

The highest level found in the sampling on Dec. 16 was about 23,000 picocuries per liter in the new well drilled within about 25 yards of Sequoyah's cooling water discharge channel leading to the Tennessee River.

The Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water standard is 20,000 picocuries per liter. The nuclear industries "voluntary reporting level" also is 20,000 picocuries per liter. A "curie" is the standard measure for the intensity of radioactivity, and a picocurie is one trillionth of a curie.

"That was a hot spot when we notified the NRC of the finding," Simmons said. "We did the prudent thing. We notified and informed people what the conditions were.

He said regulations didn't require TVA to examine where the tritium came from, but the utility had some of the substance analyzed by independent experts who found with dating and tests that it "aligns with a spill that we had in the 1980s."

He said TVA investigated further and determined that there is no active leak now.

"That doesn't mean we've stopped looking," Carlin said. "And we'll keep people informed."

He said experts believe the tritium plume is stable and isn't going to move to the river.

"We do not in any way shape or form find that that tritium in the ground is acceptable," Carlin said. "Please do not go away thinking that we're saying that meets our standard. It doesn't meet our standard. It's unacceptable."