In early 1980, the NRC proposed a fine of $29,000 on the Tennessee Valley Authority for an event at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama. TVA restarted Browns Ferry Unit 3 on December 6, 1979, following a refueling outage. The equipment hatch to the drywell (see figure), had been opened during the outage to facilitate access to components inside the primary containment. It had been closed but not properly sealed prior to restart. Workers purged air from the primary containment and replaced it with nitrogen gas to achieve the inerted conditions required during reactor operation. Because of the faulty seal, nitrogen leaked from the primary containment at ten times the normal rate and considerably above the legal limit.
The event especially upset the NRC because TVA had detected the excessive nitrogen leakage every 8 hours during routine surveillance testing, yet it continued operating the plant in violation of its license for four days until the problem was finally corrected.
TVA’s lawyers pointed that out the NRC and the TVA were both federal agencies and one federal agency lacked statutory authority to impose a civil penalty on another one. The NRC’s lawyers reviewed this response and acknowledged that TVA’s lawyers were correct. But the NRC’s lawyers mentioned, almost in passing, that it used civil penalties as an element of its oversight of nuclear power as mandated by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The NRC levied civil penalties on plant owners when they violated NRC’s safety regulations either deliberately or to a significant extent. The NRC informed TVA that until it resolved the federal agency sovereignty issue, it would be unable to issue an operating license for TVA’s Sequoyah nuclear plant in Tennessee.
Faced with winning the battle but losing the war, TVA quickly capitulated. TVA wrote back to the NRC:
TVA is fully committed to the safe operation of its nuclear facilities. An inherent part of this committal is TVA’s support of the NRC inspection and enforcement program. We believe that a strong and effective program is essential to safe operation of nuclear reactors. It is the policy of the TVA Board to cooperate with the NRC in this effort as fully as possible.
TVA paid NRC the $29,000 fine for Browns Ferry in January 1980 and received an operating license for its Sequoyah Unit 1 reactor the following month. It was the first nuclear power plant licensed by the NRC after the meltdown at Three Mile Island Unit 2 in March 1979.
NRC determined that TVA knowingly operated Browns Ferry Unit 3 outside the law for several days and that TVA initially refused to be held accountable for it. NRC retaliated by blackmailing TVA, refusing to license Sequoyah until Browns Ferry’s ticket was paid.
Somewhere in this mess is an insanity plea or two.
“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.