Another safety flag for TVA

Another safety flag for TVA

July 7th, 2012 by Pam Sohn in News

Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters and TVA logo

Photo by Miranda Harple


• Sequoyah to Chattanooga: 17.6 miles

• Watts Bar to Chattanooga: 48.4 miles

• Browns Ferry to Chattanooga: 105.3 miles

• Bellefonte to Chattanooga: 41.8 miles

Source: Google Maps Distance Calculator

TVA has garnered another safety flag from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency -- the fourth in just over a year.

The newest -- a "white" finding -- comes at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Ala., which already has been under a "red" safety finding since May 2011.

An NRC letter to TVA dated June 22 says the reactor operators at Browns Ferry do not understand and know how to implement 5-month-old NRC and TVA procedures for responding to a plant fire.

And their TVA trainers didn't know how, either.

"Other staff members, including those responsible for training and oversight of operators, also displayed a lack of knowledge," states the letter from NRC's Richard Croteau, director of the division of reactor projects. The trainers "were providing negative training to operators," the letter states.

NRC assigns four colors -- green, white, yellow and red -- to its inspection findings. Green is safe. White is the lowest safety flag. Yellow signifies moderate concern, and red is the highest level of concern. The only level after that is an order to shut down a plant, NRC representatives have said.

TVA spokesman Jim Nesbitt said TVA is working hard to upgrade fire protection measures at Browns Ferry.

"TVA promptly addressed the training issue raised by the NRC and is implementing additional actions to address the cause of the problem," he said. "TVA's top priority is the safe operation of its nuclear plants."

But Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said TVA, of all utilities, should be on top of fire concerns.

It was a 1975 fire at Browns Ferry that prompted NRC's new regulations, which were finalized on Sept. 13, 2011.

The regulations had been NRC and industry suggestions before that, and most of the nation's 104 commercial reactors already had adopted them, industry officials have said.

"Not good," Lochbaum said of NRC's findings, noticed earlier this year during an inspection of a fire simulation exercise at the plant.

"[Thirty-seven years after the Browns Ferry fire, workers at Browns Ferry are not properly trained to respond to a fire," he said.

In May, NRC extended TVA's deadline to comply with the new fire regulations for another year.

Lochbaum, a former TVA nuclear engineer at Browns Ferry and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission instructor, also shook his head at the new white safety finding.

"TVA appears to be going for the rainbow -- seeking all colors while most plant owners want only the green ones," he said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a science-based nonprofit that advocates safety and says it is neither anti- nor pro-nuclear.

Last year's red finding for a stuck cooling valve that may have been unnoticed for 18 months prompted intense additional oversight by the NRC. That will not end until TVA tells the NRC it is ready for a third volley of inspectors to see if the plant has fixed the shortcomings identified by the regulator's first two rounds of team inspections.

After the red finding at Browns Ferry, Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy and Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn., both were white-flagged.

The white finding at Sequoyah -- for excessive unplanned reactor shutdowns in an 18-month period -- has been lifted, according to TVA and NRC.

The white finding at Watts Bar was made for a security problem that neither TVA nor NRC would disclose.

NRC's newest white finding letter on Browns Ferry offers TVA an opportunity to appeal its "preliminary" finding.

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said Friday that NRC may roll additional inspections for the newest flag into the final inspections to follow up on the plant's red finding.

"But if it's something we need to look at more closely we will do that," he said.