The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 11, 2013

Whistleblower raises safety questions at public Browns Ferry meeting

By Kim West

— DECATUR — The Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant engineer identified four days ago by The Huntsville Times as a TVA whistleblower made a surprise appearance Thursday during a three-hour U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission public meeting at Calhoun Community College.

Joni Johnson, 52, an engineer/root-cause analyst for Browns Ferry, upstaged the proceedings amid a half-dozen members of the Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation, NRC regulators in navy blazers and a trio of dark-suited executives from TVA, including outgoing chief nuclear officer Preston Swafford.

After three inspections in the past two years, federal regulators said TVA has corrected the immediate issues that led to a “red,” or severe, safety finding, after a coolant injection valve failed on Unit 1 in October 2010.

The NRC, which will release a full report in August, said the Athens plant must still show long-term improvements after inspectors noted issues with the plant’s safety culture, equipment reliability and “the need to achieve a higher margin in standards of performance.”

Swafford, who promised the TVA leadership team would ensure continued improvement in safety practices, said during the meeting he concurred with the NRC findings following “the most important inspection in the history of TVA,” and that the NRC inspection team was “thorough and appropriately intrusive” and “accurate and consistent.”

More than 50 people attended the public meeting, which was divided into three portions — a 15-minute annual assessment of Browns Ferry by Craig Kontz, acting branch chief in charge of the plant’s resident inspectors; a 40-minute review of the preliminary findings presented by NRC Region II Administrator Victor McCree and inspection team leader Eugene Guthrie; and a 90-minute question-and-answer session moderated by McCree that included several queries or comments made via teleconference.

About midway through the Q&A, Johnson stepped to the microphone to ask the NRC regulators if they would be concerned to discover that safety reports had been altered by nuclear plant officials.

Johnson, who was thanked by several people at the meeting for her willingness to come forward, told The News Courier that safety reports had been changed during a two and a half year period after being submitted by Browns Ferry safety team members.

She declined further comment about the nature and timing of the report alterations due to a pending discrimination suit filed against TVA, and her participation in an ongoing NRC investigation into allegations that TVA officials discouraged negative safety findings to receive performance bonuses and keep the plant’s three reactors running continuously.

Johnson, who has submitted her resignation, said her last day at the plant is today after serving 26 years as an electrical engineer for TVA.

Guthrie, the NRC inspection team leader, said during his presentation, “TVA has made progress in improving safety at Browns Ferry,” and “the station is now demonstrating a higher regard for improved safety at Browns Ferry.”

Gail Vaughn, 61, a Shiloh, Tenn., resident and MATRR member, said she lives “directly down river of the reactor” at Browns Ferry. She attended the meeting because of concerns about the safety of the plant and the well-being of her three children and two grandchildren.

“I know they have had significant safety issues at the reactor,” said Vaughn, who didn’t agree with a previous assessment by TVA CEO Bill Johnson in a Times interview that the public “was never in danger” from the safety violation. “And I have been concerned about the production of nuclear waste for decades.”

According to the Associated Press, Browns Ferry has a troubled history. In 1975, a worker using a candle to check for air leaks started a fire that was considered the most serious industry accident until a meltdown happened four years later at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant.

AP reported TVA, which supplies electricity to about 9 million people in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, voluntarily shuttered its entire nuclear fleet in 1985 to address safety and performance issues. The Unit 1 reactor at Browns Ferry reopened in 2007.