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Meltdown: Fire Hazards Cited at Nuclear Power Plant

Meltdown: Fire Hazards Cited at Nuclear Power Plant

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Associated Press

January 22, 2010

Federal regulators warned the Tennessee Valley Authority on Thursday about “apparent violations” involving fire safety at the utility’s Browns Ferry nuclear plant in north Alabama.

Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the findings don’t pose an immediate safety risk but are urging TVA to fix the three-reactor plant, which suffered a nearly disastrous fire in 1975 and later had to shut down for more than two decades due to problems.

The latest concerns were raised in an NRC inspection report and accompanying letter to TVA that said equipment necessary for shutting down the plant in case of a fire was not properly protected. The NRC said the plant also had flawed procedures that could delay fire response.

The NRC has raised the concerns previously, and TVA has adopted mitigation measures to address them, including posting employees in the plant to look out for fire risks. But the NRC decided after inspections last fall that TVA had not made enough progress to correct the underlying problems, said Kriss Kennedy, NRC’s regional reactor safety director.

TVA spokesman Jason Huffine said the utility is working to address the concerns as it transitions to new national fire standards. But he said reconfiguring the plant takes time.

“The safety of the public and employees is paramount to the operation of our nuclear units,” Huffine said. “There is no current safety concern at Browns Ferry.”

The NRC described the findings as significant “apparent violations.” But it was waiting for more information to make a final determination. Kennedy said that should take about three months, and that TVA would probably face additional federal oversight if the preliminary findings are upheld.

Browns Ferry first generated power in 1974, but it had to be shut down the next year when an employee using a lit candle to check for air leaks sparked a fire that caused $10 million in damage and threatened the systems used to keep nuclear reactions under control. The fire — classified as the worst accident at a U.S. nuclear plant until the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 — resulted in reams of new safety rules for plants.

In 1985, the plant was shuttered for more than two decades after repeated safety and management lapses. After billions of dollars in improvements, two reactors were restarted in the 1990s and the final unit was restarted in 2007.

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