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TVA receives $145K fine for 'inaccurate' report

Knoxville News-Sentinel

The Tennessee Valley Authority has been hit with a $145,000 fine for providing regulators "incomplete and inaccurate" information about a potential safety issue at its Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant for nearly five years, records show.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission levied the fine against TVA as punishment for repeated assertions over a five-year period that it had an adequate backup plan to keep safety equipment at the Watts Bar facility operational even if the plant temporarily lost power.

"The TVA letters (assuring compliance) were incomplete and inaccurate because they stated that appropriate analysis had been performed and demonstrated that the station's electric power system was fully capable of meeting its design and licensing bases," the NRC said in a report.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson II said TVA has now fixed the problem to the satisfaction of NRC regulators. He also insisted the public was never endangered by it.

"Yes, inaccurate data was inadvertently used when developing one particular electrical system configuration that would have been needed only in rare, non-operational circumstances," Hopson wrote in an email.

"Because nuclear power plant design is based on multiple layers of redundancy, it is necessary to consider how all of those various systems will interact based on which redundant equipment is currently operating," he continued.

The NRC had relied upon TVA's "incomplete and inaccurate" assessment of its backup plan when issuing various licensing permits for Watts Bar's two nuclear reactors, the report stated.

NRC inspectors determined TVA had not, in fact, performed all necessary analyses of its backup power generation plan as the utility said. An inspection report shows regulators also determined the backup plan was "inadequate" to protect the plant, its workers and the community.

Nuclear oversight employees ousted

TVA operates three commercial nuclear power plants. Two are located in Tennessee. The third is in Alabama.

TVA's Watts Bar facility is located in Spring City, Tennessee. The first nuclear reactor unit at the plant began generating power in 1996. Its second reactor was approved in 2015 and, so far, is the most-recent commercial nuclear unit approved for operation in the U.S.

Unlike its coal-fired plants, TVA's nuclear facilities are routinely inspected by the NRC for safety violations to ensure the safety of employees and the surrounding community.

Three former Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear safety oversight workers filed a complaint in November with the U.S. Department of Labor in which they alleged they were ousted from their jobs and publicly humiliated in an attempt to intimidate and silence whistleblowers.

TVA said in both internal and public announcements the independent whistleblowing program was ineffective and was being scrapped in favor of a new one in which whistleblowers would take their safety complaints to their bosses.

That complaint remains pending.

Unsafe levels of radiation could escape immediate detection

Knox News conducted a review of NRC inspection reports for the past two years at Watts Bar and found the following:

An alarm signaling a problem with a radiation monitor – designed to protect against unsafe levels of exposure – went unnoticed for 24 hours in July 2018. The monitor "was inoperable" during that time, and two shifts of workers failed to notice.

Inspectors determined TVA has a history of violating "worker fatigue" rules and documented dozens of instances in which workers "worked for greater than seven days consecutively without having a day off." A NRC report stated the "failure to control work hours ... could result in performance of work while impaired from fatigue." The commission concluded the problem was pervasive at Watts Bar and indicates "that these problems were programmatic at Watts Bar and potentially the (entire) TVA (nuclear plant) fleet."

Quality assurance records were missing or destroyed. "(NRC rules require) that sufficient records shall be maintained to furnish evidence of activities affecting quality," an inspection report stated.

Five Watts Bar supervisors, nine TVA corporate supervisors and five contract labor supervisors did not receive training on a program designed to encourage employees to blow the whistle on safety violations within three months of their hiring as required by the NRC. This is the same whistleblower program that is at the heart of the labor complaint filed by the three former TVA oversight staffers.

Inspectors found in May a radiation hot spot in a waste packaging area of the plant that had gone undetected for eight days. When inspectors conducted an independent survey later that same month, they confirmed continued unsafe radiation levels inside the same packaging area. A NRC report on the incident said it "adversely affected the cornerstone objective to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety from exposure to radioactive materials released into the public domain (and) could lead to unplanned radiation exposures."

Unsafe levels of radiation could escape immediate detection by TVA's radiation monitors because the warning devices were set too low. "Radiation monitors ... provide criteria for determining the need for notification and participation of local and state agencies" in the event of a leak, the report stated.

TVA's Hopson said the utility has corrected the various safety issues identified by NRC inspectors in the reports reviewed by Knox News. None of those issues resulted in harm to the public, he said.

"As always, our number one priority continues to be the safe operation of our plants, and this includes complying with all NRC regulations," Hopson said in an email.

"TVA has taken steps to improve its performance in these areas. In addition to those immediate steps, we go even further to evaluate the cause of any deficiency noted so we can better understand it and implement corrective actions to prevent similar types of issues in the future, not only at Watts Bar but at all of our nuclear facilities."


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 5, 2019 4:37 pm GMT

"TVA's Hopson said the utility has corrected the various safety issues identified by NRC inspectors in the reports reviewed by Knox News. None of those issues resulted in harm to the public, he said."

Another insignificant maintenance issue elevated by an unidentified antinuclear activist to the level of Pending Armageddon. Z-z-z.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 4, 2019 5:16 pm GMT

Should the local news outlet not report when a plant is found in violation of regulations?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 4, 2019 6:52 pm GMT

What a local news outlet reports is not up to me to decide, but I know for a fact coal, natural gas, and even solar installers are cited for safety violations all the time. The only purpose it serves is multiplying page clicks.

The only purpose it serves here is to disadvantage a carbon-free source of energy of which someone is very, very afraid.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Dec 6, 2019 9:02 am GMT

Rather than fault NRC (much less the messenger - the Knoxville News Sentinel), it might be constructive to suggest that OSHA, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) get sufficient funding and regulatory support to do their jobs too. 

Even better, why don´t they just get their act together? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 7, 2019 7:57 pm GMT

Mark, all big companies are occasionally cited for safety violations. They aren't in the least bit newsworthy unless they happen at a scary nuclear plant.

It is, in large part, the fault of the messenger  - for capitalizing on irrational fear at the expense of the environment. And some believe the NRC may be too diligent in citing nuclear plants - the fear they arouse is more dangerous than the violation itself.

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