Sohn: Concerns pile up at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant

Workers walk past the Unit 2 turbine at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.
Workers walk past the Unit 2 turbine at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.

The news last week out of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant was chilling - literally and figuratively.

Three of every four staff members in the Employee Concerns Program did not feel safe to raise concerns about safety at the plant without fear of retaliation, according to an external review of TVA's work environment ordered by TVA's inspector general. The IG's report was a follow-up to last year's Nuclear Regulatory Commission's "chilled worked environment" warning - a disturbing indication of safety culture problems at TVA's twin-reactor nuclear plant near Spring City, Tenn., on the Tennessee River not far north of the Hamilton and Rhea county line.

"When 75 percent of a work group at a nuclear utility perceives that they are working in a chilled environment as is the case with Employee Concerns Program at TVA, it would seem reasonable to conclude that there is a chilled work environment in that group and [it is] unreasonable to pass it off as a 'degraded work environment' [as TVA did]," the TVA inspector general concluded in the new 118-page report.

So TVA's nuclear workers are worried, and they are feeling intimidated about doing anything about it. We find that worrisome and chilling, as well.

In 2016, Watts Bar workers filed 35 allegations of employee concerns with the NRC - a number that led the nation among all nuclear power plants. More than half of Watts Bar's complaints were made after the newest reactor was started up in September. The second largest group of employee concerns brought to NRC, totaling 18, came from Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy.

TVA President Bill Johnson acknowledged that TVA is still working on its safety culture at Watts Bar, but he told Times Free Press Business Editor Dave Flessner on Friday that "there should be no public concern about the safety of our nuclear plants."

Johnson said significant improvements have been made and more than 100 corrective steps taken - many since the consultants' survey was completed for the the IG's report.

"We're not ignoring this concern or downplaying it. But we are working a plan; we're getting measured against that plan, and we're making progress against that plan," Johnson said.

We, like all other regional residents, want to be reassured. But there's no such thing as a small safety concern with nuclear power. And Watts Bar, a design and planned construction that began in 1973, has a pretty record.

The completion of the twin-reactor Watts Bar plant, originally scheduled in the 1980s, was delayed after safety concerns were raised about the way the plant was originally built. TVA spent an extra decade and more than $2 billion to identify problems and upgrade equipment before starting the first reactor at Watts Bar in 1996. TVA renewed construction on Watts Bar Unit 2 in 2007. In 2016, it would finally become the first new nuclear unit to be added to America's electric grid in two decades.

In late 2011 and 2012, two Watts Bar Unit 2 contractors were prosecuted and sentenced in federal court after pleading guilty to falsifying and overseeing falsified work records. Those contractors were responsible for making quality control inspections on electrical cables in the reactor's containment area. But in some cases, the cables they certified as meeting safety standards weren't even installed, according to federal court records. Yes, you read that right. The cables didn't even exist, except on paper, and in TVA work papers, they'd been put in place and deemed safe.

In January of 2012, TVA ordered a safety "stand down" for about 1,000 contract workers at the new reactor after finding that some of those workers in December had erroneously removed cables from Unit 1 - the operating reactor. In April of 2012, TVA said the reactor, originally expected to be completed that year, would not be complete until December 2015 at a cost almost double the original estimate. Altogether, the plant's construction has cost ratepayers about $12 billion.

In 2013, the NRC fined TVA $70,000 for not adequately verifying the quality of some safety equipment. This was not installation but the equipment itself that was used in the newest reactor.

In March of 2016, a pump motor fire at the new Unit 2 reactor forced the public utility to declare a brief emergency alert even before the new reactor reached criticality. TVA crews were testing equipment in the new unit when the fire was noticed. Because it took 19 minutes to extinguish the "small" fire, TVA was required to declare a "Notice of an Unusual Event" - the lowest of the four NRC emergency classifications.

Now the newest unit has been shut down since March due to problems in a condenser on the non-nuclear side of the plant.

It's important to recall that, just a few years ago, all three of TVA's nuclear plants were under some form of special watch - all at the same time - from NRC because of safety concerns.

Should we sense a pattern here?

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