by Kristen Wright, senior editor
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee on Friday visited Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant with the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). During a joint call immediately following the tour, both said the nuclear power plant is safe, but it needs some changes.
“They can continue to operate,” said NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko.
As of Oct. 7, the NRC had not made any determination that Browns Ferry is unable to operate safely, he said.
The NRC cited Browns Ferry, roughly 80 miles north of Birmingham near Athens, Ala., earlier this year for a faulty valve that could have inhibited cooling of the nuclear reactors during an emergency. The design of the reactors at Browns Ferry is similar to those at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan, Jaczko said.
The valve was one of several findings that contributed to the NRC’s giving Browns Ferry a red rating, the final warning before the NRC calls for a mandatory plant shutdown. (The NRC has never shut down a U.S. nuclear power plant, although TVA voluntarily shut down its entire nuclear fleet in 1985 to address safety and performance issues. Browns Ferry Units 2 and 3 were restarted in the 1990s. In 2007, Unit 1 was the nation’s first nuclear power plant to come online in the 21st century.)
The red rating at Browns Ferry warranted an extensive, three-phase NRC inspection that began in September. Alexander and Jaczko’s tour was part of the second phase that began earlier that week. The second phase evaluates maintenance programs and corrective action.
“The reason I’m here is to make sure the safety inspectors are doing their jobs,” Alexander said. “They are.”
The No. 3 GOP senator, former two-term Tennessee governor and two-time presidential candidate called himself a nuclear energy proponent. Alexander said he wants to create an environment in which nuclear power plants can succeed. The Browns Ferry tour with Jaczko reassured him that U.S. nuclear power plants remain safe, and when there is a problem, the NRC “gets on it,” he said.
“Safety of the nuclear reactor is a matter of continuous improvement,” Alexander said.
TVA repaired the faulty valve at Browns Ferry immediately, Jaczko said, but some of the equipment isn’t as reliable as the NRC and TVA would like to see it. TVA has accepted all NRC conclusions and is working to get them fixed, Jaczko said. The tour, he said, provided Alexander and him the ability to talk to the staff and work with TVA “to put the plant back into the condition everyone wants it to be in.”
Likely it will take TVA several years to make all the modifications recommended by the NRC, Jaczko said.
Alexander called the problems “performance deficiencies.”
Nevertheless, all U.S. nuclear power plants are designed to withstand multiple and concurrent events beyond the worst on record—including Browns Ferry, Jaczko said.
“It is a very robust structure, a very robust plant,” he said.
Alexander said he is just as reassured of the safety at Browns Ferry following his tour as he was after the nuclear power plant withstood storms and tornadoes—including four EF5s—in April. The storms showed that systems at Browns Ferry worked as they should, he said. In that case, the three reactors automatically shut down, and backup generators cooled the reactors for five days.
Browns Ferry was TVA’s first nuclear plant and was the world’s largest when it began operation in 1947. It also was the world’s first nuclear plant to generate more than 1 billion W of power.