Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant has made headlines several times over the past several years, though not for reasons that cast the facility in the most flattering light.
After restoring the mothballed Unit 1 reactor in 2007 after 22 years out of service, there were five emergency shutdowns. Following the failure of a residual heat removal injection valve in the plant’s redundant fire system in the fall of 2010, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a “red,” or significant, safety finding on Unit 1 at the plant.
Despite an appeal by the Tennessee Valley Authority, that ruling was upheld last year.
The finding also placed Unit 1 into what the NRC refers to as a “repetitive degraded cornerstone,” and prompted the oversight agency to implement a three-part intensive inspection, known as 95003. Two parts of that inspection have been completed, while the NRC now awaits word from TVA to begin the third.
Since the red finding was issued, there have been more issues reported at the plant, including a small and brief fire that occurred in January, but wasn’t reported to the NRC until March. TVA officials later said they didn’t feel like the incident warranted a report at all.
In August, the NRC issued a white finding, or one of low-to-moderate safety significance, at the plant after inspectors found operators unfamiliar with safe shutdown instructions in the event of a fire. The NRC identified procedural adherence deficiencies and determined that operators and staff were not adequately trained on the new procedures written by TVA.
Officials with TVA and Browns Ferry this week acknowledged that while these incidents have been a cause for concern, officials with the utility are working toward reliability and sustainability at the plant and have a roadmap for the future.
“These (nuclear) plants don’t get in trouble overnight,” said Preston Swafford, executive vice president and chief nuclear officer for TVA. “ … Even though that valve failed in late 2010, it’s clear recognition that Browns Ferry was showing signs of decline.”
Swafford is no stranger to the power business, having previously served two years as executive vice president of TVA’s Fossil Power Group. Prior to joining TVA in 2006, he served as senior vice president of Exelon Energy Delivery for more than 10 years.
“Browns Ferry was a top performer, and then it was a bottom performer,” he said. “We’ve been (making improvements) for three and a half years, and most of the foundation is in and most of the walls are going up. … We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Issues and improvements
The issues TVA is working to address at the plant are wide-ranging. Keith Polson, site vice president at Browns Ferry, said management went all the way back to 2007 and uncovered literally thousands of issues that were condensed down to five focus areas — fire protection, corrective action program, operator decision making, accountability and equipment reliability.
“I’ve been at Browns Ferry two and a half years, and there are a lot of good things going on, but you hear a lot of the bad,” Polson said. “We are 100 percent committed to safe operation of those three units, and our goal is to protect the health and safety of the public.”
Polson has more than 23 years of experience in the power industry. He led Dresden Nuclear Power Station to a new U.S. record for shortest boiling water reactor refueling outages and, according to his TVA biography, improved outage performance at River Bend, Grand Gulf and Nine Mile Point nuclear power stations. Like Swafford, he also worked for Exelon.
“In the nuclear industry, we’re all one across the country and we’re allowed to benchmark and we share best practices, unlike other competitive industries,” he said. “We know if one unit goes down, it affects the whole industry.”
One of the improvements being made at the plant, Polson said, relates to staffing improvements, training and safety. Swafford plans to propose to TVA that 100 to 150 new employees are hired at the plant.
“We sat down and looked at comprehensively what we need for permanent staffing as we get better and strive to be the best,” he said.
Workforce and leadership goals
Swafford said there’s a “bigger picture strategy” on how to attract a competent workforce. He added that plant operators have to be licensed by the NRC, a long process that requires commitment from the employee, his or her family and the TVA. It costs TVA roughly $450,000 per person for an operator to become licensed by the NRC.
Swafford said TVA also looked closely at the senior leadership team at Browns Ferry and found not all were SROs, or senior reactor operator-certified.
“The goal is at all three of our nuclear plants, every senior leader will be certified or licensed on a reactor. Down the road, this will give real intelligence and sustainability to the team,” he said. “TVA did not have a successful succession plan up and rolling, so you find outsiders (to work at the plant) and that’s not (beneficial) for long-term sustainability. … We have a goal of 80 percent promotion from within TVA and I want 20 percent external so we don’t get too insular.”
Polson said the plant has also made significant strides in terms of overall health and safety improvements to operators. The plant recently reached a milestone of five million person-hours worked without a loss-time accident. During two refueling outages, there were no incidents recorded to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Since bringing the plant’s Unit 1 back online, Polson said it has the lowest radiation dose rates than any other boiling water reactor in the country.
“Lots of innovative things were done to keep dose to people low,” he said. “We’ve reduced the dose by 220 rim (30 percent) from where it was.”
— See Sunday’s edition of The News Courier for the second part of this story.