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Nuclear Angst in the Heartland

July 26, 2011

In 1933, the federal government’s creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority helped bring electricity and economic development to much of rural Tennessee. It was steeped in controversy when it began.

In the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in March, TVA’s controversy continues  to brew.

 Story and Photographs © 2011 by Robin Nelson/ZUMA Press  All Rights Reserved

 

 

Loudon, TN — Mansour Guity sipped his morning coffee on the deck of his waterfront home and gazed at the peaceful Tennessee River below. “Yes, it is beautiful. I am very blessed,” he said.

 But Mr. Guity wakes every day with an unrelenting concern about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s nuclear plants in this region of the south. Especially the Watts Bar reactors, 31 miles downriver from his home.

“It is an accident waiting to happen,” he says of the facility, mired in controversy since on-and-off construction began in 1973. “There is a serious potential for trouble still embedded within the structures. It is not a matter of ‘if’ something happens, but ‘when’ something happens,” he warned. 

He speaks with authority. And more than a little anger.

Guity, 69, a senior nuclear engineer, was lead quality assurance auditor for design and construction at the Watts Bar site in the late 1970’s. Not long after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, Guity was handpicked to join the now-defunct Nuclear Safety Review Staff, which was responsible for reviewing multiple nuclear power generators in the TVA fleet.

Mr. Guity said he discovered unauthorized shortcuts and inadequate craftsmanship in numerous aspects of construction at the Watts Bar site.  

“I exposed significant nuclear safety problems in my reports, many of which remain unresolved today,” he said.   

“I found cables that had been bent beyond their permitted radius. Other cables, critical to the operation of valves and switches in the reactor and containment building, had been vertically suspended without any support. Some had been pulled and stressed beyond their limits. Nobody really knows how badly the cables may have been compromised, and they are the nerve system of a nuclear power plant. There were problems with welds, and concrete walls that were too thin, and just a lot of poor work.”

 “I was asked to serve on the NSR staff because of my experience and because I said it like it is.  But the TVA didn’t like what I had to say,” he continued.  “My reports that exposed serious problems were often ignored.”

“Regardless of whatever happened in the 70s and 80s, it’s a new era today,” insists Ray Golden, a TVA spokesman. “There probably are still some long-standing allegations that have not been closed out,” he admitted.  “But, before Unit 2 comes online, before we get a license to operate, there will be an exhaustive review by this company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.” 

The NRC has the exclusive authority and responsibility for the safety of the American public when it comes to nuclear power, Mr. Golden said. “They don’t take that lightly. The NRC has the expertise to come in and inspect every aspect of the site — the licensing documents, the cables, the welds, wall thicknesses, all of it. They will make the ultimate determination if a license should be granted or not.”

“When information came to light about construction quality problems at Watts Bar in the 80’s, the TVA and NRC investigated them. I can’t speak to the rigor of those inspections; I would hope that they were very rigorous. People make allegations or raise concerns and those allegations are investigated.  Sometimes to their satisfaction, other times not to their satisfaction, and they tend to want to retain their issue,” he noted. 


Mr. Guity eventually went public with his reports. He was the primary witness in a 1986 congressional investigation into the TVA.

“Twenty years ago, the NRC declared Watts Bar to be the worst nuclear plant ever designed and constructed in the world. It took a lot of courage for the NRC to come up with that evaluation,” he said. 

It was the cloud of collusion, corruption, fear and intimidation during that time that troubled him the most, he said.

“Third-party inspectors had the responsibility to examine every facet of construction and write their reports.  Everything had to meet strict guidelines. Inspectors were often quietly ordered by their supervisors to accept things that didn’t meet quality or nuclear safety compliance requirements,” he said.

“If something wasn’t right and an inspector made note of it in his report, there was a TVA manager who called the inspector’s supervisors and strongly encouraged them to ‘rein in’ that inspector. Inspectors sometimes changed their reports because they were in fear for their jobs,” he said.  “I couldn’t trust their reports because they had been compromised.”

“This was all happening during a time when anyone who spoke out was fired. The inspectors were so scared they were afraid to talk to me on the telephone,” Mr. Guity continued. “There were times I had to drive two hours away to a remote location or telephone just so these inspectors could feel safe in telling me what was really going on.”

“The TVA knew what they were doing. They were under the gun to reduce completion costs and get the thing running to generate electricity. Many of the problems are buried beneath 30 to 40 years of construction,” he said.

Construction at Watts Bar stalled in 1986, for both economic and safety reasons. The region’s demand for more power had slowed. The downtime was used to correct problems, TVA officials explained. It would be eleven years before Unit 1 was completed and licensed to operate in 1996.

Unit 2’s construction resumed in 2007. Expected to be fully operational by the end of 2012, it will be the first new civilian reactor in the U.S. to power up since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in March.

After his testimony in Washington, D.C., the Nuclear Safety Review Staff was eliminated in a TVA reorganization. Mr. Guity was reassigned to a new job in the TVA offices in Chattanooga, an hour further south. 

Stripped of any real authority and reporting to his new post without defined job responsibilities, Guity found himself with little to do except read newspapers, industry journals and talk on the telephone with his friends.  “I was a workaholic. Now I had nothing to do. If my supervisors did give me something to evaluate I usually found flaws  — and that was the last thing they wanted,” he said.Depression eventually took its toll on Mr. Guity, forcing him to go on medical disability in 1987. A Department of Labor investigation later supported all of his allegations. 

When Mansour Guity and other whistle blowers came forward in the mid-eighties, the TVA had represented to the NRC that Watts Bar Unit 1 was ready to go online. When the NRC started looking into the allegations, they said ‘no’,” recalls Steven Smith, a Knoxville, Tennessee veterinarian who left his practice in 1999 to lead a clean energy initiative.

“Not only did they not let Watts Bar come on, they shut down all of TVA’s reactors for three years,” he said.“The TVA is very arrogant about the way it approaches nuclear power. They feel like they can do anything.   They have amnesia about some of the historic issues that have plagued the agency. It is their overly aggressive approach to nuclear power that led to TVA having the largest debt of any utility in the country,” he added.

“During that eleven-year period, there were certain systems they still had access to that they fixed,” he said.  “There were others they claimed were not part of the critical paths for shutting the reactor down that were likely not addressed. I think some of those things were baked into the reactor, which are now difficult to reach.”

“To be fair, Unit 1 has run reasonably well since it came online 15 years ago,” Mr. Smith continued.  “It is unclear if Unit 2 will do the same.  It is also unclear if some of those fundamental problems that were identified during the construction phase will be able to withstand the full demands of the reactor when it goes online.  Did they only correct some the surface things?  Over time, will some of those fundamental flaws in construction manifest themselves before the operational life of the reactor is over? That story will only be known after forty or sixty years.”

“These reactors are terribly unforgiving if they get out of control. It is definitely an outdated design. The systems in these older reactors have multiple paths for failure. They are dependent on a number of human factors, particularly in how they are shut down,” he said.

The Fukushima disaster in Japan shook the nuclear power industry to its core, Mr. Smith noted. “It was a jarring demonstration of just how quickly cascading events can cripple a nuclear reactor,” he said.

“To the industry’s credit, they do build in redundancies. ‘Defense in depth’ means if multiple things go wrong, you are still able to shut the reactor down safely and maintain control. But it should make everyone question the normal thinking about how much defense in depth you have.”

“At what point have you done enough defense in depth to where it is safe?  The industry will say what they’ve done in the U.S. is enough, anything else will just add cost,” Smith said. 

“Can I say Watts Bar will be the reactor that has a problem? That’s hard to say. But the longer they push that reactor and the longer it operates, the greater the chance for some of those baked-in issues that Mr. Guity identified to become a problem. 

“The way the NRC is regulating, allowing these reactors to run longer than they were designed to do, allowing license extensions, allowing the utilities to make them run harder than they were designed to do, dialing back on regulatory oversight reviews, I think is a prescription for an accident. Bringing on Unit 2 next year doubles the possibilities that some of those fundamental problems could manifest themselves,” he said.

“The regulators and the general public should be asking a lot of tough questions. A big question is, will the NRC take the lessons learned from Fukushima, or will they give Watts Bar a pass?”

Mr. Golden admits that the TVA, like nuclear power industry at large, was knocked off-center by the Fukushima disaster.

“We never considered the concept of stacked events, about what would happen if we had a combination of a flood and a tornado, or a flood and an earthquake. The NRC never had that as part of their design basis. So this is a whole new lens that the regulators and the industry has to look through,” he said.

“Within a day of the Fukushima disaster, we had centralized response team from all three TVA sites. We wanted to know what happened, how did it happen, and what is the significance of what happened. We are analyzing our plants. Fukushima showed us there are opportunities for improvement. As an industry we will become, in a perverse way, a better industry because of this event.” Mr. Golden continued.

But to Mr. Smith, the 1950’s live on in this region of the country.

“There is this legacy in the Tennessee Valley, in the area of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where nuclear power was born. Nuclear energy is part of this area’s culture. The TVA tries to characterize itself as being the only utility that is bringing on new nuclear reactors,” he explained.

“There’s nothing new about these reactors. This agency has a troubled past and is trying to clean up its balance sheet with old reactors that were never finished. They want to bring these units online before they are so old they are obsolete and become lost assets.”

“From a safety perspective, that doesn’t do anything to build confidence. From an innovation and leadership perspective, we think the TVA should be focused on the clean energy side,” he said.

The Watts Bar plant sits along the Tennessee River near its namesake dam in a rural stretch of rolling hills between Knoxville and Chattanooga. The serene river landscape in the plant’s immediate vicinity is host to dozens of fishermen every day, in boats and along the banks, who happily fill their coolers with catfish. “Some of the biggest I’ve seen, some of them fifty pounds,” noted one angler who has been fishing in sight of the majestic cooling towers for more than ten years.  He had no concerns over the nuclear reactors’ safety.

Along the winding roads to the small towns nearby, many residents seem equally unconcerned about any potential nuclear mishap.

“Folks are hurting for money around here, they really pinch their pennies,” says Joe Zych, who owns the Peddler’s Village and Flea Market a few miles from the site’s well-guarded entrance. “There’s not that much work in the area except for the power plant. We would be a lot worse off if it weren’t here. I think it’s safe, and so do most of the people I know,” he said.

The power plant’s regular work force fluctuates between 900 to 1,400 employees.  Construction crews for the second reactor account for another 3,400 jobs. Watts Bar’s current payroll exceeds well over $100 million. While the TVA pays no taxes because it is a government-owned utility, nearly $128 million for fees in lieu of taxes are paid to state and local governments. Road impact fees and purchase of local goods and services bump the total economic impact to well over $230 million, Mr. Golden explained.

When the second reactor goes online, the plant will generate a combined total of more than 2,300 megawatts of power per day.

Mr. Golden and other TVA officials maintain they are not only good neighbors, but safe ones as well.

“If you look at the TVA fleet over the past 37 years, and you look at performance indicators — the number of reactor trips, workers’ exposure to radiation, and radioactive waste material that is generated, you would see steadily improving numbers. We’re not perfect. There’s human frailty and mechanical issues, but collectively we are better than we were in 1974.”

“We’ve been the pioneer. To some extent we try to be a leader, too.  We try to benchmark best practices in other areas — California, for example — and bring them back to our facilities to continue to improve,” he said.

The TVA conducted economic studies and determined there was two billion dollars in savings to their customers by finishing a partially constructed unit rather than building something new, Mr. Golden continued.

“The rigor, pedigree and quality assurance that goes into nuclear plants is massive, regardless if they were older units sitting idle or not. We don’t assume anything. Everything needs to demonstrate its safety capability. It is all refurbished, reverified and recertified in order to demonstrate that it is safe,” he said.

Mansour Guity would like to believe it was so.

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