TVA reactors all rated exemplary for the first time

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Part of the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy is seen Nov. 29.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Part of the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy is seen Nov. 29.


Growing up on a lake in Canton, Ohio, where hockey was a favorite sport, Tim Rausch skated his way onto a North American travel hockey team and once hoped to be a winger in the National Hockey League.

As a backup to an NHL career, Rausch studied nuclear engineering at the University of Cincinnati, where he ultimately graduated with honors and said he fell in love with working in the nuclear industry. While a freshman, Rausch had an internship at the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey, "and after that I knew this was a technology I wanted to be a part of."

Over his 25-year career in nuclear power, Rausch said the team approach and winning passion he learned on the ice playing hockey has stuck with him at nuclear plants he has worked at in Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and finally with TVA in Tennessee and Alabama.

Since joining TVA as its chief nuclear officer five years ago, Rausch has helped lead the utility's nuclear team to achieve exemplary performance at all three of its nuclear plants for the first time in TVA history. TVA has cut the share of time its nuclear plants are not available for power generation to a record low and launched what may be the first construction of a small modular reactor in the United States within the next decade.

Rausch, a 59-year-old nuclear engineer, said his team is working to do even better. Through improved leadership, training, culture and investments, TVA has set a goal of being the nation's top nuclear fleet by 2025.

"We want to be the best, and as I learned early in my career, that depends upon each individual understanding and doing their critical roles and responsibilities and making sure the right handoffs occur," Rausch said in an interview. "It's really a team sport with nuclear power and getting the team to perform at a level that they probably didn't think they were capable of is kind of like winning the Stanley Cup on hockey."

TVA's nuclear team wasn't scoring as many goals in 2018, when Rausch left his previous job as chief nuclear officer at the Susquehanna nuclear plant in Pennsylvania and moved south to head TVA's nuclear program, which is the third biggest of any utility in the nation.

 

Record fines for TVA

Two years before Rausch came to TVA, the federal utility completed America's first new commercial reactor in the 21st century in 2016 when it completed construction and began power generation at its Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar nuclear plant near Spring City, Tennessee.

But the project took 43 years to complete and ended up costing several times more than its initial projection. While work progressed on Unit 2, TVA's safety culture at Watts Bar Unit 1 came under fire and ultimately led federal regulators to impose a record $903,471 of civil penalties against TVA for a handful of violations during the restart of Unit 1 in 2015. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also issued citations against two managers and the plant operator at Watts Bar for failing to adequately investigate and correct the problem.

TVA was accused of ignoring or even stifling employee safety concerns in the past at Watts Bar, according to nuclear regulators. In response to the commission's concerns, TVA established an employee concerns program for Watts Bar.

Rausch and his boss, TVA President Jeff Lyash, who is also a former nuclear plant operator, said they have worked to change the culture at TVA's nuclear plants.

"TVA has a great nuclear heritage, but historically it has been a bottom half performer (compared with other U.S. nuclear plants)" Lyash said in an interview last week. "You have to set a clear vision, and the vision that Tim and I set for the nuclear program is for these plants to be top quartile (in the top 25% of all U.S. plants) by 2022 and the best in the industry by 2025. Nuclear power is the underpinning of our entire power system, and we've sought in our nuclear program to build a culture of continuous improvement."

With that vision, Rausch said TVA has made the investments for better performance in both safety and reliability.

TVA nuclear power

TVA operates the third largest fleet of nuclear power plants in the United States. Nuclear power provides about 42% of the electricity for TVA from seven commercial reactors:

› Browns Ferry near Athens, Alabama, is a boiling water reactor that began power generation in 1974 and has three units.

› Sequoyah near Soddy-Daisy is a pressurized water reactor that began power generation in 1981 and has two units.

› Watts Bar near Spring City, Tennessee, is a pressurized water reactor that began power generation in 1996 and has two units.

› TVA began planning or building another 10 reactors in the 1960s but ultimately scrapped those units at Hartsville and Phipps Bend in Tennessee, Bellefonte in Alabama and Yellow Creek in Mississippi.

› TVA obtained an early site permit in 2019 and is pursuing plans for small modular reactors on the Clinch River near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where TVA and the Department of Energy once planned to build a breeder reactor.

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

 

Improving performance

Frank Schulte, operations training manager at TVA's Sequoyah plant, said he has seen the improved dedication and support for better plant performance and safety since joining TVA in 2011.

"Just seeing what has happened with our training programs over the past decade is like night and day, and from an operations standpoint, that has certainly had a significant impact," Schulte said in an interview at the Sequoyah training center last month. "Our overall team is operating much better today, and our results show that. We work hard to train our reactor operators to be ready and able to respond to virtually any scenario that could develop."

TVA has improved its power performance at all three of its nuclear plants, boosting its overall capacity factor at the plants above 90% this year. During the past fiscal year, Browns Ferry Unit 2 and Watts Bar Unit 1 both had continuous run records and Sequoyah performed in the top 25% of all U.S. plants for the entire year based on standard nuclear industry definitions, according to TVA's annual report for 2023. TVA also achieved a 100% pass rate among those in its most recent licensing class and reported zero industrial, radiological, environmental or nuclear significant events in the past year.

Schulte said "public safety is our No. 1 priority" and remains more critical than keeping the power flowing from the reactors.

But critics of nuclear power remain skeptical.

"There are significant issues in this industry with tremendous pressure to cut costs, both in safety and security, and I don't think that TVA is immune from that," Edwin Lyman, a physicist and the director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I don't think the picture is very good right now in terms of striving to increase performance by spending what it takes, especially as these units get older."

TVA's operating nuclear reactors, like others built in the United States during the 1960s through the 1980s, were initially licensed for 40 years. Most of those plant licenses have since been extended to 60 years, and Lyash said he plans to ask for license extensions to keep TVA's operating plants running for 80 years and maybe even up to 100 years.

"We're building the culture, making the investments, developing our talent and continually raising the bar for continuous improvement in our nuclear program," Lyash said.

John Kotek, senior vice president of government policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said TVA should be able to build and run more nuclear power at competitive prices and without the carbon emissions linked with global warming.

"While it is certainly true that recent projects have exceeded their initial estimated costs, what matters most is system costs and the ultimate prices paid by consumers," Kotek said in an emailed statement. "Moving forward, the next generation of reactors will become more affordable and be built quicker than their predecessors, but that does not happen overnight. Innovation in any new technology is defined by fits, starts and potential cost overruns. TVA and the broader nuclear energy industry continue to take a measured, decision-gated approach and incorporating lessons learned from recent nuclear construction projects in the U.S. and around the world."

Rausch said he is remaining focused on TVA's operating plants even as the utility prepares to begin building the next generation of nuclear plants. By next summer, TVA plans to submit a construction permit application to build the first GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 small modular reactor on the Clinch River in Oak Ridge. Lyash said he hopes the reactors can be duplicated across the Tennessee Valley, and Lyash said it is possible TVA may also build more large-scale nuclear plants in the future to meet the growing power demand in the Tennessee Valley.

TVA's chief operating officer, Don Moul, is overseeing new plant development while Rausch continues to oversee plant operations.

Rausch said building excellence in TVA's nuclear program is similar to his approach to playing hockey.

"To achieve excellence, I tell everyone to start with yourself. It's like playing hockey — focus on small things you can control and build from there," Rausch said. "Success becomes a habit. Then move on to bigger and bigger challenges."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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