TVA Gambles on Bellefonte Nuclear Reactors

Stephen Smith | August 11, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has long been concerned with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) push to add more nuclear reactors to their energy mix in spite of readily available energy efficiency and renewable energy alternatives. But TVA’s dogged pursuit to complete the nearly forty-year-old, antiquated Bellefonte site in Alabama is a unique and especially risky proposition. Simply put, finishing these two abandoned and degraded reactors is a multi-billion dollar bet TVA should not place. The risks to public health and safety, potential financial impacts on TVA ratepayers and U.S. taxpayers are too significant to ignore.

On August 9, 2011, SACE released a report titled “TVA’s Bad Nuclear Bet: Gambling BILLION$ on Bellefonte Reactors.” I strongly encourage you to read the full report; it documents in detail the significant risks TVA faces in their attempt to complete Bellefonte. The report includes a technical analysis from Mr. Arnold Gundersen, Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Associates, Inc., a nuclear engineer with nearly forty years of experience. A short video also summarizes his analysis. Seven major areas that need to be addressed when restarting construction at Bellefonte have been identified including:

  • Containment Problems Unique to Bellefonte
  • Groundwater Intrusion That Is Weakening Bellefonte’s Foundations
  • Missing Critical Nuclear Quality Assurance Documents and Completed Record
  • Cannibalization of Bellefonte’s Operating Systems
  • Bellefonte’s Unique Design
  • Historical Precedence
  • Post-Fukushima Lessons Learned

The TVA Board is tentatively scheduled to vote on this risky proposal at their next board meeting on August 18, 2011, in Knoxville. It is our contention that it will be difficult for TVA to complete Bellefonte, but short of that, cost overruns and delays at Bellefonte would risk TVA hitting and potentially exceeding their Congressionally-mandated $30 billion dollar debt limit. Given the current political climate, the federal government’s willingness to raise TVA’s debt limit is far from a sure thing.

Clearly SACE’s report has struck a nerve with TVA as evidenced by their reaction. TVA did not issue a point-by-point response to the seven major issues raised in the report. How could they, as many of the issues raised in the report rely on TVA’s own documents and filings with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as source material. Instead, they chose to cherry-pick which safety concerns they would address.

TVA was correct in pointing out that Mr. Gundersen misspoke when answering a reporter’s question about the need for TVA to open up Bellefonte’s containment to replace the steam generators. The misstatement is not part of the technical analysis of the report and Mr. Gundersen has acknowledged the misstatement. This does not diminish nor change the concerns Mr. Gundersen raised concerning the requirement to detension and then retension the tendons at Bellefonte. TVA’s own letter to the NRC from March of this year, “Bellefonte, Units 1 and 2, Regarding Containment Vertical Tendon Coupling Failure- Fourth Interim Report,” clearly states that this work will need to be done to the vertical tendons at Bellefonte. Similar issues at the Progress Energy Crystal River 3 reactor have lead to significant delays and cost overruns. The Crystal River reactor has been offline for more than three years with an estimated cost of $1.3 billion to repair.

Crystal River suffered major cracks (“delaminations”) in the containment vessel during this process, which was closely studied beforehand by both Progress, it’s subcontractors and the NRC. Again, TVA’s own documentation clearly states this process will need to happen at Bellefonte, and consequently, the potential for cost overruns and delays at Bellefonte are vast. From page five of the March letter to the NRC:

Work has been authorized for the development of a containment vertical tendon
detensioning plan, taking into consideration the Crystal River containment
concrete delamination experience in which the sequence of detensioning was
found to be a factor in concrete cracking. Once a detensioning plan has been
developed, an independent review will be conducted prior to the start of
containment detensioning activities. After approval of the final detensioning plan,
TVA will detension the tendons according to the plan to perform the remaining
[non-destructive evaluation] to support completion of the extent of condition evaluation.

Regarding another of the seven major issues identified in the report, “Groundwater Intrusion That Is Weakening Bellefonte’s Foundations,” TVA claims in its response:

TVA used all known available technologies ― visual inspection, core drilling, ultrasound and acoustic sounding ― to investigate groundwater intrusion at Bellefonte Unit 1, and found no indication of compromise or degradation to the foundation. The containment building had no water intrusion at all.

As revealed in SACE’s report and Gundersen’s accompanying technical analysis, four currently licensed operating reactors also applied “all known available technologies” in an effort to inspect these power plants for concrete degradation. Each of the four plants, all newer than Bellefonte, that also used nuclear grade high-quality concrete, experienced severe concrete degradation that was undetectable until severe erosion in excess of 20 percent of the concrete strength had occurred. Please note that TVA does acknowledge that water did enter the facility, but allegedly not the containment. It is Mr. Gundersen’s opinion, based on his nearly forty years of dealing with nuclear safety issues, that groundwater is weakening the foundation at Bellefonte. The NRC has visited Bellefonte and issued inspection reports regarding this and other matters. These inspection reports show that TVA cannot prove that groundwater intrusion is not weakening the foundation.

Another serious risk factor is the Quality Assurance (QA) and Quality Control process at Bellefonte. Bellefonte has numerous structural and QA flaws that will most likely be insurmountable. Other nuclear plants that have experienced less severe QA flaws than those at Bellefonte Unit 1 have been canceled. TVA is missing critical nuclear Quality Assurance documents and has incomplete records.

A licensee event report (LER) dated May 14, 2009, stated that a configuration control lapse took place at Bellefonte. From the report,”Configuration control was not maintained and physical equipment issues were not documented under a Quality Assurance Plan for the period of time from in which Construction Permits CPPR-122 and CPPR-123 were withdrawn until they were reinstated.” Prior to this date, TVA did not acknowledge this lapse in records. After walking away from its construction permit in 2006, Bellefonte Unit 1 was cannibalized and by transferring equipment valued at approximately $49 million to other TVA nuclear and fossil-fueled plants. NRC Senior Project Manager Joseph Williams also identified these very same weaknesses when the NRC reinstated the construction permits for Bellefonte (for Williams’ non-concurrence, see Attachment 2 of the report).

Mr. Gundersen has used his professional judgment based on years of experience in the industry for the SACE Bellefonte report (see Attachment 1 of the report). Major problems exist with regard to tendons in the containment structure, groundwater issues, and the QA/QC breakdown. SACE and Mr. Gundersen stand by the report and the contention that it will be very difficult for TVA to complete Bellefonte.

You can add your voice by contacting the TVA Board directly and telling them that you think the risks are too great to invest billions more dollars in a project that is likely to fail. Now is the time for the TVA Congressional delegation, TVA-served states and ultimately the TVA Board of Directors to realize Bellefonte is a nuclear proposal that should not be pursued. We have outlined a number of serious concerns in the report; each one of them is significant. Collectively they are overwhelming. TVA should not throw good money after bad in their attempt to complete Bellefonte.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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