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Staff photo by Tim Barber / Both cooling towers are in operation at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported the Nuclear Regulatory Commission citations and job titles for three Watts Bar employees. Although the NRC considered temporarily banning Johnson, Sprinkle and Blankenship from any licensed nuclear activities, regulators decided against such a penalty, contrary to what was incorrectly reported earlier. No site director or plant manager was penalized either. This story was updated at 4:57 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

The head of the Tennessee Valley Authority acknowledges that the commitment to excellence and safety by the managers and employees of the federal utility wasn't what it should have been in the past, which contributed to TVA receiving record fines over the past year for previous safety violations at its nuclear plants.

But as a licensed nuclear engineer who has helped run three of North America's biggest nuclear power programs, TVA President Jeff Lyash insists TVA can and is doing better today.

"TVA's nuclear program in decades past was too accepting of mediocrity and just rising to the average," Lyash said in an interview with the Times Free Press this week. "That's not a nuclear program we want. We want a nuclear fleet that is best in the industry."

Lyash said the penalties imposed against TVA earlier this month for regulatory violations five years ago during the restart of a Tennessee nuclear power plant underscore some of the deficiencies at TVA in the past. The NRC gave TVA three fines totaling $903,471 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.

The NRC also issued notices of violations against shift supervisors Billy W. Johnson and William Sprinkle and control room operator Todd Blankenship for their roles in the 2015 restart of Watts Bar Unit 1.

The fines this month were the biggest ever against TVA and the largest imposed by the NRC of any utility since 2005 when the NRC slapped its biggest fine ever against FirstEnergy in Ohio for what was regarded as one of the most dangerous nuclear incidents in 2002, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell. The NRC imposed a $5.45 million penalty against FirstEnergy for safety violations regarding a leaking vessel head at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant.

The fines proposed this month are the third set of fines by the NRC against TVA in the past year for regulatory violations at Watts Bar.

TVA still has until early next month to appeal the latest NRC fines and Lyash said TVA is still evaluating the proposed penalties. But the TVA CEO said the criticisms of the NRC "are valid" and demonstrate that TVA "didn't effectively follow our own procedures and didn't demonstrate the correct approach to conservative decision making."

"These incidents didn't put the public safety at risk, but they were indicative of a culture that wasn't acceptable," he said. "While the event itself did not put the public at risk, you can't tolerate a culture and a leadership style that allows even these kind of lower-level events to happen."

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Read the NRC citations against TVA over 2015 Watts Bar incident - Jim Barstow

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Read the NRC citations against TVA over 2015 Watts Bar incident - Todd Blankenship

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Read the NRC citations against TVA over 2015 Watts Bar incident - Billy W. Johnson

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Read the NRC citations against TVA over 2015 Watts Bar incident - William Sprinkle

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But Lyash said TVA's nuclear program is much better today with different leaders, practices and culture.

"The actions take over the last five years have effectively resolved all of the underlying issues," Lyash said.

TVA still remains under heightened regulatory oversight due to the NRC's 2018 finding that there is a "chilled work environment" in the nuclear program. But NRC inspectors have credited TVA for making significant improvements in the way it encourages and handles employee safety concerns at its nuclear power plants in Tennessee and Alabama.

Lyash said the refueling outages at the Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Browns Ferry nuclear plants this year also demonstrate the ongoing improvement in the nuclear program at TVA, which previously ranked among the bottom third of all utilities in the time it takes to refuel a nuclear reactor.

"We set our sights this year on improving that record," he said. "The three spring refueling outages and our full Watts Bar outages this fall were all done within 30 days each and that moved us to be a top quartile utility. That pays big dividends for customers in fuel costs when these plants are online and available."

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

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