Federal regulators have slapped a $140,000 fine on the Tennessee Valley Authority for failing to maintain adequate fire protection last year at the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant near Athens, Ala.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation in May 2015 found five contract workers deliberately failed to conduct roving fire watch patrols as required when fire protection equipment was out of service at the time.
NRC Regional Administrator Cathy Haney said "missed fire watches greatly concern us" since fires in a nuclear plant can damage equipment and compromise safety systems. NRC senior manager John Grobe has estimated fire represents 50 percent of the risk of a reactor core meltdown at the typical U.S. nuclear plant.
"Even though plants have other fire protection features, fire watches are an integral part of the plant's overall fire protection strategy, especially when other equipment is temporarily unavailable," Haney said.
Steve Bono, site director for Browns Ferry, said TVA "accepts full responsibility" for failing to ensure the fire watches were in place at Browns Ferry and the federal utility will pay the $140,000 civil penalty to the NRC. Bono said the workers involved in the incident were removed from their jobs and TVA has since upgraded its fire safety training and record keeping.
"In this instance, we did not meet our own standards and we have implemented corrective actions to ensure that this does not happen again," Bono said. "While this event is serious to us in that we had individuals who willfully violated our procedures, it did not affect the safety for the public or our plant personnel and it was immediately corrected after we discovered it."
The Browns Ferry plant was the site of one of the worst nuclear plant fires in U.S. history in 1975 when a worker using a candle to search for air leaks accidentally set a temporary cable seal on fire. The fire spread and caused significant damage to the reactor control cabling in the plant.
In response, the NRC adopted many of the fire safety standards it now uses for nuclear power plants.
TVA previously has been cited for fire safety violations at Browns Ferry, including a 2010 violation for multiple instances of not having proper fire protection equipment and training systems. In the past 30 years, TVA has cited Browns Ferry with level III violations or higher on 12 occasions.
But Bono said TVA has made major upgrades in its equipment, systems and training for fire safety "and in many areas we are a state-of-the-art facility" for fire safety.
But Browns Ferry is not the only TVA plant being cited this month for violations of fire watch requirements.
Last week, the NRC also cited TVA for falsifying records at its Watts Bar nuclear plant to show contract workers had performed fire watches when they may not have done so. Because those errors involved improper record keeping and were not judged to have safety significance, the NRC issued a level IV violation against TVA without any civil penalty.
In its citation, the NRC blamed TVA "for the failure to maintain continuous compensatory fire watch information that was complete and accurate in all material respects" and said the plant was "creating falsified fire watch completion record" for an auxiliary building at Watts Bar.
"In consideration of the fact that the individuals were contract fire watch personnel with minimal supervisory responsibilities, and that the underlying safety significance of the missed fire watch was low, the NRC concluded that this violation should be characterized at Severity Level IV [without any fine]," said Alan Blamey, chief of the NRC's reactor projects in the Atlanta region.
The NRC set the fine for the Browns Ferry violations based on the severity of the missed fire watches and the multiple contract personnel engaged in deliberate misconduct.
David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said violations of fire safety standards at two TVA nuclear plants calls into question the agency's commitment to NRC standards.
"That the same problem appeared at Browns Ferry and Watts Bar suggests that TVA doesn't take fire watches seriously," Lochbaum said Tuesday. "If TVA took it seriously, the close management attention and oversight would have either prevented the problem or at least caught it sooner."
Fire watches are maintained at nuclear plants as an extra layer of protection when other safety equipment is taken out of service or when welding or other repair work is done.
When then-NRC Chairman Ivan Selin was asked in the late 1990s during a congressional hearing about the duration of fire watches as a compensatory measure, he said they were reasonable for about six months. But Browns Ferry and other U.S. nuclear plants have been using fire watches for decades.
"My concern about chronic use of fire watches is that their use never went through a rulemaking process [at the NRC]," Lochbaum said.
TVA has 30 days to pay the civil penalty or appeal its imposition, but Bono said TVA accepts the NRC findings and will pay the civil penalty.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.