TVA Gambles on Bellefonte Nuclear Reactors

sacereportcoverSouthern 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 to 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.

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The current, once cancelled, construction permit presents serious problems which compromises the very foundation of nuclear facility permitting and licensing which primary purpose is for the safety of citizens. The ignoring of facts compromising citizen safety at Bellefonte is appalling and reflects a set of misplaced values on the part of the TVA and the NRC which are unacceptable and compromises the health and safety of United States Citizens for the bottom line of the nuclear construction industry and in this case the TVA. This obsolete, once cancelled nuclear construction permit is all about a shortcut to avoid modern safety requirements and newly discovered environmental and design facts relative to the Bellefonte facility.

The current nuclear construction permit must be rejected – cancelled forever. If Bellefonte is to be built, it must be built under the requirements of a modern current nuclear construction permit to insure a safe nuclear facility.

Comment by Garry Morgan on August 11, 2011 3:12 pm

The only talking point the opposition has to completing Bellefonte is a canceled building permit, which in my opinion is extremely thin. The self proclaimed “environmentalists” will always find something negative, no matter how small, to ensure good paying jobs and affordable energy are blocked.

If TVA was planning on reusing much of the equipment that has been “cannabalized”, the same people complaining about said cannabalization would be protesting them using old and obsolete equipment left in place. In other words, nothing is good enough for these people.

This PWR design is neither obsolete nor is it dangerous to the public as the design already has proven itself safe and reliable throughout the world. To say otherwise is either ignorance or rhetoric.

Comment by eddie on August 12, 2011 12:38 am

@Gary, Bellafonte has a construction permit, not an operating license. The NRC cannot grant them an operating license unless they comply with all regulations before and since the construction permit was issued. TVA cannot split fission a single Uranium atom until they have an operating license.

Regarding Fukushima, you’ll notice that the recently released NRC 90 day reports recomends addiaitonal actions for the units at Watts Bar and Belafonte under contruction should adhere to. Once the report has been reviewed by NRC staff, those actions will be required as a condition of license. Please don’t beleive the propoganda that the industry is ignoring Fukushima.

As to weather or not this is good for the environment, replacing coal burners, which kill 25,000 Americans via respiratory illness every year (not to mention climate change) with a fission reactor that has not killed, made sick, or injured a single member of the US public in almost 50 years of operating 100 or more reactors: that’s a no-brainer. SACE should be emracing this project AND calling for renewable energy. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Comment by Jack Gamble on August 12, 2011 8:18 am

Thank you for your comment, if you read the report, it is not critical of all PWR reactors, this report focuses on the limited operating history of the few Babcock & Wilcox, B&W operating commerical reactors, , and the very limited operating history of the “205” design of the Bellefonte reactors in particular.

Comment by Stephen Smith on August 12, 2011 11:31 am

Steven Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy,

I have read the report put out by your organization, it is full of misleading statements and untruths. Based on what I know, I can only surmize your organization has an agenda to rid the valley of affordable and safe energy production as well as good paying jobs. It should be noted that a nuclear engineer is not a structural engineer.

With the exception of man made climate change, I agree with Jack that we should have a mix of nuclear and “green” energies. Wind and solar will not provide baseload power, I don’t care how many times the environmentalists chant that we can, it’s not going to happen.

I also believe coal is a good asset in TVA’s generation portfolio and I don’t see it being phased out completely in my lifetime. I do not believe coal power is costing us 25,000 lives/year, if it were true then automobiles are costing us 100x that many lives per year with accidents and exhaust emmisions.

Bellefonte will be refitted with the most current and up to date equipment on the market. The design is proven safe and reliable and will be a valuable asset to North Alabama by providing affordable/safe energy and good paying jobs. The area around the plant will experience great prosperity as local businesses will see huge increases in yearly revenue.

I believe that regardless of the bad info being put out by the SACE, this project will move foward and the people of the valley who love affordable/safe energy and good paying jobs will rejoice.

Comment by eddie on August 13, 2011 12:27 am


You say the report is full of, “misleading statements and untruths.” Could you be specific
about what in the report is misleading and untrue?

As Dr. Smith mentioned, much of the evidence in the Bellefonte report is based on filings between TVA and the NRC.

Comment by Aaron Sarver on August 13, 2011 8:29 pm

Is it possible that Crystal River containment was more susceptible to delamination because of the hole that was cut to enable steam generator replacement?

The original design did not anticipate ever having to replace steam generators.

Comment by Jason on August 14, 2011 10:46 pm

Yes, it’s a good point. There do seem to be a large amounts of unknowns about what is happening at Crystal River 3. Our concern is that while we don’t know for sure what caused the first delamination (cracks), we do know that the second cracks were caused when they where retensioning the tendons. While TVA will not have to cut a hole they do appear to have to detension and retension the tendons at Bellefonte unit 1.
Our concern is that the utilities and the NRC are on unknown ground here, and Crystal River 3 is not going well.

Comment by Stephen Smith on August 18, 2011 10:07 pm

Sure Aaron,

#1 – SACE says TVA will have to cut a hole in the containment vessle to install a new steam generator.

In fact, there is an equipment hatch for this task. This task has already been done at another TVA nuclear facility.

#2 – SACE said it took TVA 100 days to identify the source of a loud noise that occurred at Bellefonte.

It actually took 7 days for TVA to determine the root cause, which was a verticle steel tendon that came loose from its coupling.

#3 – SACE claims Bellefonte has experienced concrete damage from water intrusion.

The containment building, which has a steel liner, experienced no water intrusion whatsoever.

#4 – SACE is making a big deal about the “cannibalization” of safety equipment in the plant.

Common sense says that this is a good thing. The plant needs new safety equipment and this will save TVA on demolition costs to remove the old equipment. To me, this is the silliest of SACE’s claims.

I would like to congratulate all of North Alabama on TVA’s decision yesterday. I hope everyone understands what an amazing opportunity this is for your area. Your standard of living is just about to get a lot better.

Comment by eddie on August 19, 2011 6:05 am

Thanks for pointing out the issues you believe are “misleading statements and untruths”.
The truth is the following:

#1 SACE did not ever state that the containment at Bellefonte would need to cut nor is that in our published report. Arnie Gundersen, the nuclear engineer we hired to do a review of the plant, did make this statement at our press conference. If you read the blog above, we make the following statement to correct his error:

“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.

#2 Again if you read the report on page 4, we state the following:

In August 2009 a loud gunshot-like noise was heard inside the containment vessel of Bellefonte reactor Unit 1. It took a week, however, for TVA staff to determine the cause of the noise: a “containment vertical tendon” had failed. On December 10, 2009, TVA acknowledged the incident in a licensee event report (LER) to the NRC.15

It was over a 100 days to report it to the NRC.

#3 It is Mr. Gundersen’s professional judgement that this remains a serious concern at Bellefonte based on his review of the data.

#4 Again in the report the issue is not the replacement of parts, it is the nuclear QA/QC breakdown that took place during the time that TVA cancelled the construction permit.
This remains a serious problem that TVA still has not overcome with the NRC.

Yesterday’s decision is far from a good thing nor a green light for this troubled plant, what the board has done has committed TVA ratepayers to continue to pour significant money into an old and troubled nuclear plant, which now is already causing an increase in electric rates.
If economic development is the what is needed in northeast Alabama, forcing the citizens of the Tennessee Valley to pour good money after bad on this troubled facility, is not the best way to help the region economically.

Time will tell.

Comment by Stephen Smith on August 19, 2011 9:07 am

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