September 22, 2020

Alarms raised over aging, 46-year-old Alabama nuclear plant

Critics are raising alarms over the age of Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, which opened 46 years ago on the banks of the Tennessee River and is still operating.

Some say equipment at the three-reactor plant is being forced to generate power longer than originally intended and that the storage of spent nuclear fuel is a growing problem, The Decatur Daily reported.

But both the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the plant, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say the public shouldn’t worry about the plant, located about 40 miles west of Huntsville.

The first reactor at Browns Ferry opened on Dec. 20, 1973 as the U.S. nuclear industry was growing. The plant has had major problems since, including a serious fire in 1975 and poor operating reviews in 2010.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, called the age of the plant “a huge issue looming on the horizon.”

“TVA is making the equipment and the plant work longer and harder than it was originally designed for,” said Smith, who also serves on a council that advises TVA directors. “People need to be very concerned about this.”

The Washington-based Union for Concerned Scientists said that having 46 years of spent fuel stored onsite in pools could be a threat to the entire region.

“Our main concern is that creates an unacceptable higher risk for fire,” said Edwin Lyman, acting director of nuclear safety projects for the group.

Lyman said “a terrorist attack could reach a cooling pool with an explosive device and could breach the liner of the cooling pool.”

He favors transferring used fuel into dry storage.

Josh Perrel, a program manager with TVA, said all three Browns Ferry units have undergone intensive inspections for license renewals in recent years, and a program ensures that older equipment is performing correctly.

“We evaluate the current plant conditions,” Perrel said.

Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said storing used nuclear material in either water-filled pools or dry casks near a major river is safe as long as plant operators follow the rules.

“The NRC inspection program contains detailed guidance to evaluate spent fuel pool and dry cask safety, as well as the plant’s environmental monitoring program, which would provide early indications of any issues with those systems,” he said.

TVA also operates the nation’s newest nuclear plant, Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2, which began operation in June 2016. The federal utility serves nearly 10 million customers in parts of seven Southeastern states.