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Tennessee may spend millions to improve nuclear reactor safety

Published 18 April 2011

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is considering spending millions of dollars to bolster its six nuclear reactors against earthquakes and floods; TVA is the first American nuclear plant operator to declare safety changes following events in Japan; TVA is currently considering reducing the amount of fuel that it stores in its spent fuel pools instead transferring older fuel rods to passively cooled “dry casks” ; the operator will also add additional back up diesel generators, make improvements to electrical grids to make them more earthquake resistant, add small generators to recharge cell phone batteries and to keep lights on, and reinforce pipes that send cold water to spent fuel pools

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is considering spending millions of dollars to bolster its six nuclear reactors against earthquakes and floods.

The announcement comes a result of the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, where workers are struggling to contain overheating nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after it was struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.

TVA is the first American nuclear plant operator to declare safety changes following events in Japan.

While other nuclear plant operators have publicly hinted that they are considering implementing new safety regulations, TVA has issued a fact sheet that outlines specific changes based on preliminary lessons learned from Japan’s nuclear disaster.

TVA is currently considering reducing the amount of fuel that it stores in its spent fuel pools instead transferring older fuel rods to passively cooled “dry casks.” The operator will also add additional back up diesel generators.

Other changes include improvements to electrical grids to make them more earthquake resistant, the addition of small generators to recharge cell phone batteries and to keep lights on, and reinforcing pipes that send cold water to spent fuel pools.

TVA operates three boiling water reactors that are similar to the failing reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

None of TVA’s nuclear plants are located near areas where earthquakes are a risk, but it is seeking to minimize “potential vulnerabilities from a chain of events, such as damage from a tornado or earthquake combined with flooding from a dam failure.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the midst of conducting a safety review of America’s nuclear power plants and whether they are prepared for severe accidents.

Critics of nuclear power and safety advocates are pushing for all nuclear plants to conduct safety reviews and analysis similar to TVA’s.

In particular, safety advocates are concerned about the long running debate over spent nuclear fuel.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Congress requested that the National Academy of Sciences to examine the problem and in 2005 it reported that spent fuel pools are vulnerable to terrorist attack. It recommended the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to evaluate moving fuel to dry casks.

Dry casks store spent fuel rods after they have cooled for about five years in special pools. The casks are sealed steel containers filled with inert gas to prevent the rods from rusting. The steel container is then placed in a concrete silo with cool air circulating around it to keep the fuel below its melting point.

U.S. nuclear plants were not originally designed to contain large amounts of nuclear fuel on site, as engineers had originally expected that spent fuel would be moved to a special containment facility deep underground. But as lawmakers have struggled to build a permanent storage facility, nuclear operators have been forced to keep more fuel on site.

In 2009 the Obama administration complicated the debate by ruling out the use of a Department of Energy storage site in Nevada. The site had undergone years of preparation to become a permanent storage facility for the nation’s nuclear waste.

The Obama administration has launched a commission to find alternatives to the permanent nuclear storage site. The commission is considering other locations as well as exploring technologies to reuse spent nuclear fuel.