A request by the Tennessee Valley Authority to increase power being generated by three reactors at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is still under consideration, an official said Tuesday.
TVA submitted a license amendment request to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in September 2015. The request seeks an increase of approximately 20 percent above the original licensed thermal power level and an increase of about 14.3 percent above the current power level.
NRC Spokesman Scott Burnell said opposing groups have sought a hearing to voice opposition to the proposal and that NRC legal staff and TVA are in the process of filing a response. He explained the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is just now beginning the process of examining all the legal points raised by all the parties. He said it would be “some time” before the board decides whether requirements for a hearing have been met.
Increasing the power from the reactors, known as an “uprate,” would allow TVA to create and sell more power to regional utility companies.
“It would allow (TVA) to take better advantage of the full capabilities of Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant,” said TVA Spokesman Jim Hopson. “This has been done at similar reactors and it has been done safely.”
Bellefonte Efficiency & Sustainability Team (BEST) is one of those groups opposing TVA's request because of safety concerns. The group, which is affiliated with Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation (MATRR), believes, “TVA's request unnecessarily increases the safety risk to the public and employees, and therefore should be denied.”
The group points out that the three Browns Ferry reactors are similar in design to those used at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The plant was the site of three nuclear meltdowns, resulting in the release of radioactive material, following a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
Because of the design similarity to the Fukushima reactors, BEST claims that Browns Ferry's three core fuel containments, “are especially vulnerable to overheating and resulting explosions” and that “research reports show that the computer modeling has underestimated the risk.”
Burnell said the NRC continues to conclude Browns Ferry's existing systems are capable of safely dealing with severe events at the plant.
“The plant’s already acceptable safety capabilities have been enhanced by additional resources and procedures the NRC required in 2012,” he said.
TVA announced Monday that Unit 1 at the nuke plant is now offline for a scheduled maintenance and refueling outage.
A press release about the outage said workers would install modifications supporting the recent implementation of an enhanced fire protection program as well as a system that improves the station’s ability to safely respond to extreme external events.
Hopson said plant engineers would upgrade the unit's fire protection system and processes. Four years ago, TVA transitioned the three units to meet National Fire Protection Association Standard 805. Hopson said the Unit 1 outage provided the first available opportunity to upgrade Unit 1 to meet that standard.
According to the NFPA, Standard 805 specifies the minimum fire protection requirements for existing light water nuclear power plants during all phases of operation, including shutdown, degraded conditions and decommissioning. The standard also contains performance-based guidelines that meet NRC regulations for protecting important equipment and systems within nuclear power plants.
“This will allow us to enhance an already strong fire protection system,” Hopson said.
Another upgrade being made is the addition of portable diesel generators that can be brought in and hooked up at a moment's notice if primary backup generators fail. TVA is also adding the portable generators at Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear power plants.
During the April 2011 tornadoes, the main transmission lines going into Browns Ferry were damaged, causing the three reactors to shut down. A series of generators kept the reactors cool. Hopson explained the portable generators were added after TVA officials asked, “What would happen if those backup generators failed?”
“So we have the portable generators and pumps stored at a security facility that can be brought into service and hooked up to pre-wired and pre-plumbed connections so we can power those critical systems,” he said. “It's an entirely new blanket of protection. Even under the most extreme events, the site could still maintain cooling.”
When asked about the cost of what Hopson called a fifth layer of protection, he said the price tag is “hundreds of millions of dollars.” He explained, however, it's an inexpensive price to keep plants and the public safe.
“It really is telling that since the Three Mile Island event of 1979, there hasn't been another serious nuclear accident in the United States, and the reason for that is we have developed all these multiple layers of protection to ensure these things don't happen,” he said.
“Because (nuclear power) is special and unique, you have to take special and unique care to think beyond what could happen. Fukushima was an extraordinary event, but it did show weaknesses we chose not to wait for in the United States. We chose to be proactive.”