An investigation by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) has found that the recently-restarted Browns Ferry-1 reactor still does not comply with federal fire protection regulations put into place because of a near-catastrophic fire at the reactor in 1975.
The reactor does not meet the regulations despite the Tennessee Valley Authority having spent $1.8 Billion to revive the long-shuttered reactor.
President Bush is slated to visit Browns Ferry-1 on Thursday, June 21. He is expected to herald its restart as a sign of a nuclear power renaissance. “If this is proof of a nuclear power resurgence,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS, “then the industry is in big trouble. TVA spent $1.8 Billion just to get this obsolete reactor running again, and the utility still can’t meet basic federal safety regulations.”
A fire at Browns Ferry-1 on March 22, 1975 began by a worker checking for air leaks with a lighted candle. The fire quickly spread from the cable spreading room into the reactor building. The fire burned out of control for seven and half hours destroying over 1600 electrical cables including 628 safety-related cable systems. As a result of the fire, in 1981 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission adopted new fire protection regulations that, among other requirements, specifically required passive fire protection features (qualified and rated fire barriers, minimum separation requirements and automated fire suppression and detection) to limit fire damage done to electrical circuits for equipment so that the ability to shut down the plant safely from the control room would be ensured.
A document uncovered by NIRS and not released publicly prior to the Browns Ferry-1 restart indicates that the reactor is not in compliance with the fire protection regulations, and did not apply for an exemption from the regulations. Instead, the NRC allowed the reactor to restart under “enforcement discretion” like the two other Browns Ferry reactors it shares a building with. This means that the NRC simply decided not to enforce its own regulations in the Browns Ferry case.
“It is very troubling that the NRC would allow the restart with Browns Ferry in violation of the Browns Ferry fire law,” said Paul Gunter, director of NIRS’ Reactor Watchdog Project, “TVA’s restart sets back nuclear power plant fire safety to pre-Browns Ferry fire conditions,” said Gunter. Mr. Gunter uncovered the hidden document, which was made public only after his inquiries to the NRC.
Besides the fire protection issue, the Browns Ferry complexfirst ordered by TVA in 1966 with Unit-1 completed in 1973suffers from other issues reflecting its obsolete reactor design.
Its undersized General Electric Mark I containment structure has been criticized for years by scientists and government officials. In 1985, then NRC Director of Nuclear Reactor Regulation Harold Denton said the containment design had about a 90% chance of failure under accident conditions.
By design, the reactor’s irradiated fuel storage pool–holding hundreds of tons of hot used reactor fuel– sits at the top of the reactor building and outside of the primary containment system. A January 2001 NRC document found that that there are no significant structures that would prevent an aircraft from penetrating the high-level nuclear waste storage pool for this design.
TVA’s $1.8 Billion investment in restarting the aging reactor is comparable to nuclear industry claims of cost estimates for constructing an entirely new reactor. “Browns Ferry-1 points out the lie to nuclear industry assertions of the costs for building new reactors,” said Gunter. “Here, TVA already had a reactor and a building, and they still spent as much as a new reactor needs to cost to be economically competitive. The reality is that a brand-new reactor would cost far, far more. Nuclear power has never been economical, and TVA has once again proven that point.”
“We hope President Bush asks TVA and the NRC why Browns Ferry-1 was allowed to restart illegally,” said Mariotte, “but we’re not holding our breath. This administration is intent on promoting nuclear power at any costincluding looking the other way on critical safety issues.”
Added Gunter, “It’s amazing that President Bush is planning to visit the restart of the Model T of the nuclear industry and hail it as the kick-off of a Nuclear Renaissance.”
A fact sheet on some of the safety deficiencies at Browns Ferry is available on NIRS website at http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/brownsferryfactsheet.pdf . A NIRS paper on specific fire protection issues at Browns Ferry-1 is available at http://www.nirs.org/reactorwatch/fire/firebfviolations04252007.pdf .