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The TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is photographed on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, near Spring City, Tenn. Watts Bar is TVA's newest nuclear plant but it has been cited again by regulators for violations of Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations. / Staff file photo

Federal regulators have slapped the biggest combined civil penalties ever against the Tennessee Valley Authority for a handful of violations of federal regulations during the restart of one of its Tennessee nuclear reactors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday proposed three fines totaling $903,471 against TVA for providing inaccurate and insufficient information to regulators and violating proper procedures in November 2015 when pressurized water levels rose uncontrollably during the restart of the Unit 1 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tennessee.

The NRC also issued citations against two managers and the plant operator at Watts Bar for their roles in the 2015 incident and for failing to adequately investigate and correct the problem.

Although the incident did not ultimately cause any harm to the public or plant employees, NRC investigators criticized TVA's safety culture and approach to running its newest nuclear plant where TVA also added another nuclear reactor in 2016. That reactor remains the last new commercial reactor added to America's power grid.

In a letter to TVA Friday, the head of NRC's enforcement special project team, Kenneth G. O'Brien, singled out the top officials at Watts Bar five years ago for not giving plant operators enough discretion to stop or delay plant operations unless they could directly prove there was a safety problem.

"The investigation identified a pervasive weakness in the station's conduct of operations and conservative decision making during the fall of 2015 and early 2016 that was directly attributable to the site vice president and plant manager at the time," O'Brien said in his letter. "Numerous operators reported that, during this period, senior site management established an expectation that Main Control Room staff had to demonstrate that a proposed plant operation was prohibited by plant procedures, or was unsafe, in order to stop or delay a scheduled operation. Watts Bar Unit 1 management's failure to ensure the primacy of safe operations led to several occasions during that period in which TVA staff failed to follow procedures, made inappropriate procedural changes, and operated the plant outside of established procedures."

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said the federal utility "takes ownership for past performance issues" and "is fully committed to safe operation" of its three nuclear plants. But Hopson noted that the violations cited at Watts Bar occurred five years ago and TVA has made changes in leadership, procedures and staffing since.

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The control room of the Watts Bar nuclear plant where the NRC says operators were not given proper authority to address potential safety problems in 2015. / Staff file photo

"We have taken significant steps to improve our operational performance and culture," Hopson said in a statement Friday night. "These improvements have been noted by the NRC and other industry groups during subsequent inspections."

Through numerous inspections, interviews, and enforcement conferences over more than four years, the NRC said it identified five TVA violations of NRC regulations at Watts Bar in November 2015. O'Brien said four of the violations were "willful" and require elevated fines against the utility.

TVA and the three cited individuals have 30 days to respond to the NRC's enforcement. Hopson said TVA is still reviewing its options.

The civil citations follow years of investigation and a preliminary finding in March that identified a dozen violations of NRC rules in the way TVA handled the equipment problems at Watts Bar.

The fines proposed Friday night are the third set of fines by the NRC against TVA in the past year for regulatory violations.

Last November, the NRC slapped a $145,000 fine on TVA for providing inaccurate information to the NRC regarding the licensing and startup work at the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar. Regulators said TVA repeatedly submitted incomplete and inaccurate information from 2010 to 2015 about the adequacy of an off-site electric power system at Watts Bar.

In August, the NRC imposed an $606,942 fine against TVA for improperly firing nuclear engineers at the Sequoyah and Watts Bar nuclear plants after the workers raised safety concerns about TVA operations. TVA nuclear chief Tim Rausch said the utility's internal investigation did not agree with the NRC findings, but ultimately TVA was required to pay the penalty.

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

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