TVA seeks to extend the life of its oldest nuclear plant for decades

This March 12, 2008 file photo shows the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Alabama (AP Photo/Jay Reeves, File)
This March 12, 2008 file photo shows the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Alabama (AP Photo/Jay Reeves, File)

While the Tennessee Valley Authority develops plans to build the next generation of nuclear power, TVA is also seeking to extend the life of its oldest and biggest nuclear power plant.

TVA directors this week authorized its staff to prepare plans to operate its Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Alabama, through 2055. TVA Nuclear Chief Tim Rausch said he expects to file an application with federal regulators by early 2025 for another license renewal to extend the original operating permit to 80 years.

"There's a lot of time and resources dedicated to preparing the application and then there is a lot of physical examination that you have to do of the power plant before entering the extension request," Rausch said in an interview this week with the Times Free Press.

The three-reactor plant, which was first built in the 1960s and began power generation in 1974, has undergone significant upgrades, maintenance and power uprates over the past half century to remain in service, Rausch said.

"If you walk through the plant today it is significantly different than when it was built," he said. "We've done digital upgrades; we've done complete turbine and heat exchanger replacements, and we've installed a lot of new equipment to continually update the facility."

With a generating capacity of nearly 3.8 gigawatts, Browns Ferry is the second most powerful nuclear plant in the United States, behind only the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona. In 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the licenses for all three reactors at Browns Ferry, extending operation for an additional 20 years past their original 40-year licensing period.

In 2019, TVA completed a four-year, $475 million power upgrade at all three of the Browns Ferry reactors to add 465 megawatts of additional generating capacity.


New and old investments

While TVA continues to invest in its first and biggest nuclear plant, the federal utility is also preparing an application to build a new and smaller reactor design near Oak Ridge. In February, TVA directors authorized spending up to $200 million to pursue plans to build a couple of GE Hitachi-design small modular reactors at the Clinch River site where TVA once proposed building a breeder reactor.

If approved by regulators, TVA's new small modular reactors could begin operation as soon as 2031.

The three boiling water reactors at Browns Ferry are nearly four times the size of the proposed new small modular reactors and collectively can supply about 10% of all of TVA's power.

TVA President Jeff Lyash said both the previous and the future generation of nuclear power plants will be needed to achieve the utility's goal of reducing carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 and by 80% by 2035. TVA has set a goal of being carbon free by 205o.

Lyash, a former senior reactor operator who once worked as an operations engineer on loan from the NRC at Browns Ferry, said nuclear plants like Browns Ferry can continue to operate for decades if they are well maintained, inspected and upgraded.

"We invest capital in these plants on an ongoing basis so most of the equipment in these plants isn't any longer the original equipment," Lyash said. "If you have a well-maintained and operated plant, which Browns Ferry is, we don't see any reason why you can't extend its license from 60 to 80 years and I think it's entirely possible to extend from 80 to 100."

Utilities across the country are beginning to seek license extensions to keep older nuclear plants running for decades into the future.

"The provisions of the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act demonstrate the strong national support for nuclear power plants to continue safely generating carbon-free electricity into the foreseeable future via license renewals and second license renewals," Doug True, chief nuclear officer for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a statement Friday. "A vast majority of the operating fleet has expressed interest in pursuing operation to 80 years, which will allow these plants to continue to serve as the most reliable workhorse of the carbon-free energy sector."


Fire erupts safety worries

Despite its improved performance in recent years, Browns Ferry began operations with what to that point was one of the worst accidents at a commercial nuclear plant in 1975 in the first year of its power generation. Two electricians were trying to seal air leaks and were using candles to determine whether or not the leaks had been successfully plugged. One of the workers put the candle too close to the foam rubber, and it burst into flame.

The resulting fire disabled the emergency core cooling system on Unit 1 and forced a review of operations by the NRC and a prolonged reactor shutdown by TVA. The unit 1 reactor was not brought back into power operations for more than two decades.

Sandra Kurtz, an environmental activist with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said operator mistakes at Browns Ferry "brought them closer to meltdown than any other nuclear plants incidents before or since" and underscore the vulnerability of nuclear plants. She said aging nuclear facilities are inherently riskier.

"After long nuclear operation, data shows that failures are high due to aging degradation," Kurtz said in a statement Friday. "Brown's Ferry has a history of safety issues and now, at this long extension over its initial planned life of 20 years, there is high risk in relicensing to run for 80 years."

Garry Morgan, an anti-nuclear activist who lives near the Browns Ferry plant, in North Alabama, questioned the reliability of an aging plant like Browns Ferry.

"Can the TVA and the NRC give assurances that the nuclear power plant's internal components, as described, are not defective as a result of metal fatigue and stress corrosion cracking? I have heard no such assurances as of this date," Morgan said in a telephone interview Friday.

But TVA directors this week praised the improvements in the utility's nuclear performance.

The Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, an industry group that seeks to promote "operational excellence" at nuclear facilities through regular inspections and reviews, recently rated TVA's nuclear power program as among the best in the industry. A decade ago, INPO rated TVA among the poorer nuclear performers.

"We've gone from worst to first," TVA Director A.D. Frazier said this week during a TVA board meeting in Martin, Tennessee. "It's a remarkable turnaround."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340. Follow on Twitter at @Dflessner1.


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