Browns Ferry Nuclear plant's safety eyed

photo Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala., is shown from above.

IF YOU GOWhat: TVA and NRC meeting about Browns Ferry nuclear safety concernsWhen: 6 p.m. CST WednesdayWhere: Calhoun Community College Aerospace Training Center, 6250 Highway 31 North in Tanner, Ala.Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency

TVA will make its case next week to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the NRC should lower three white safety flags raised earlier this year at Browns Ferry Nuclear plant near Athens, Ala.

The plagued plant's officials hope they may get out from under the NRC's lowest-level safety concerns -- the white flags. But a red finding -- the most serious the NRC can raise without shutting a plant down -- has been hanging over the utility for more than a year.

"NRC has recently completed three supplemental inspections [for the white findings] at Browns Ferry," said TVA spokesman Ray Golden. "TVA believes the inspections went well."

Browns Ferry is one of TVA's three nuclear plants that produce electricity for homes and businesses in seven states.

NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said Wednesday's evening meeting in Tanner, Ala., will cover all the concerns.

"The main purpose ... is to discuss TVA's performance and corrective actions for these issues, but NRC officials also plan to discuss the current status of the ongoing supplemental inspections for the red finding issued in 2011," he said.

NRC assigns four colors -- green, white, yellow and red -- to its inspection and performance findings. Green is safe. White is the lowest safety flag. Yellow signifies moderate safety concerns. Red designates the highest level of concern.

Each color-coded safety finding brings with it additional and increasing NRC inspection and oversight.

Cause and effect

TVA officials have said that zeal to improve safety systems and culture at Browns Ferry since NRC raised the red flag led to some of the problems that brought on the white ones.

At a July meeting, TVA nuclear operations chief Preston Swafford told NRC staff and commissioners he had to rethink some of his "fast-tracked" deadlines and goals for the plant because some of them might have distracted the plant's leadership from problems needing corrective action.

"A lot of fast-track projects started in my office. So the first person that had to change was me," he told nuclear regulators.

The month before, NRC inspectors had white-flagged one reactor when, in a test, they realized that the reactor operators did not know or understand new NRC safety procedures for safe shutdown during a fire emergency.

In August, NRC slapped white flags on the plant's other two reactors, saying that neither the operators nor their trainers knew the five-month-old procedures.

The NRC also issued TVA a notice of violation.

Browns Ferry also has two other white flags on individual reactors: one for too many unplanned shutdowns, and another for a high-pressure coolant injection system that was out of service for more than the allowable hours, said Golden and Ledford.

The red finding for one reactor stemmed from a faulty valve on a shutdown cooling system that went unnoticed for 18 months.

When it failed to operate during a routine shutdown, a backup system intended for use only in a fire was used to take the reactor safely off line, according to TVA and NRC documents.

This week Golden said recent good inspection findings from NRC demonstrate the ongoing improvement in Browns Ferry's performance.

"TVA recognizes it still has additional work to do to prepare for an additional supplemental inspection associated with a NRC red finding," he said. "TVA is committed to sustained operational excellence across all its nuclear plants and especially at Browns Ferry."

In the past year, TVA also has received NRC safety flags at its other two nuclear plants.

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

Another white finding was issued at Watts Bar for a security problem that neither TVA nor NRC would disclose. That flag also has been lifted, according to NRC's website.