TVA's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant not ready for inspection

photo Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Ala., is seen from above.

TVA's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant vice president told the Nuclear Regulatory Agency on Thursday that the plant still is not ready for a third and final special inspection to clear a reactor's "red" safety rating.

"We agree that [the red finding] is where we should be right now," said Keith Polson. "We want to reduce the risk at the plant and improve our performance, but that has to be sustainable. This is an exercise to improve our process."

NRC placed Browns Ferry in a red rating last year after it was determined in October 2010 that a valve intended to help cool the Unit 1 reactor in emergencies had not been functional in the previous 18 months. The red rating is issued when NRC believes an entire plant has issues of "high safety significance."

NRC already has made two sets of follow-up inspections on its schedule, but under NRC policy, TVA will set the final inspection schedule. TVA spokesman Ray Golden said the utility hopes to be ready to invite NRC to inspect its progress in late 2012 or early 2013.

On Thursday, Polson said TVA has reviewed five years of past plant problems and brought in an independent consultant to look at the utility's safety cultures, as well.

"For the most part they match," Polson said, but the third-party consultants did find "a couple of issues" that TVA has "to do some more work on."

Those issues involve helping employees feel more comfortable with bringing concerns to managers, said both Polson and TVA's Nuclear Operations Chief Preston Swafford.

"Obviously this is a journey we're taking very seriously," Swafford told NRC officials, and the plant and its officials will make the necessary changes.

NRC Deputy Regional Administrator Leonard Wert said NRC will continue to do its routine oversight and inspections while TVA continues to work on improving safety issues.

"I'm encouraged with the conversation about sustainability [of improved operations and safety culture]," Wert said. "The issues at Browns Ferry are complex and demanding and will require diligent efforts over a long period of time."

About 20 people attended the meeting and several addressed TVA and NRC with concerns. Some of the concerns were not just with TVA.

Garry Morgan, of Scottsboro, Ala., told NRC officials that they are not giving the public confidence by taking so long to enforce its own rules.

He brought up a 1975 fire at Browns Ferry that began when a worker was using a candle to search for air leaks and set a cable seal on fire.

"And 37 years after a candle started a fire at Browns Ferry and changed requirements for fire safety that Browns Ferry still does not meet? What are you going to do to instill our confidence?" he asked.

Wert acknowledged some slowness, but he said NRC is working to protect the public.

"There are some things we have not gotten across the goal line, and fire safety is one of them," he said. "But we've come a long way since that fire and we have not had another fire as serious as Browns Ferry's since because of some of the things we've implemented."