Engineer warns of problems at Ala. nuclear plant

ATHENS, Ala. (AP) — A Tennessee Valley Authority engineer says problems at the largest nuclear plant in Alabama have been worse than what federal regulators have reported.

The engineer, Joni Johnson, told AL.com that mechanical and managerial shortcomings at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens could have led to a meltdown.

Regulators have previously reported problems at Browns Ferry, including a cooling pump that didn’t work and cooling lines that sat blocked and unnoticed for years. Safety violations there have earned some of the worst ratings among plants monitored by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Johnson, 52, told the newspaper she’s speaking out to restore the focus on safety.

But TVA spokesman Michael Keith Bradley said the issues pointed out by Johnson have been addressed and public safety was not threatened.

“In the time frame covered in the article, emergency systems, procedures and backups were in place to safely cool and shutdown the plant if needed. Those systems remain in place and are now much improved,” Bradley told the Associated Press Monday.

Johnson, who is trained as a root cause analyst, said a worst case scenario of a broken line and a rapid loss of coolant in Unit 1 could have led to a meltdown.

She alleged that TVA officials attempted to manipulate her team’s findings concerning equipment failures and possible related organizational failures. A report by TVA’s inspector general backs up Johnson’s equipment concerns about overlapping failures in the emergency cooling system.

Johnson also said there was retaliation after initial concerns were voiced at the plant, and employees are reluctant to report safety concerns.

“You retaliate enough and people aren’t going to come forward, and that’s the real safety significance,” Johnson said.

She is responsible for figuring out what went wrong with a system, a piece of equipment or process.

It was through work on a root cause analysis for a failed cooling system motor at Browns Ferry that Johnson first encountered what she said was troubling resistance to getting to the bottom of a problem and identifying what went wrong.

“It’s a very detailed and scientific process,” she told the newspaper. “Your conclusions are based in fact and data.”

Johnson said the completion of the root cause report and the issues it cited led to strong pushback from some managers, accusations against her and eventually poor performance reviews. She said a second root cause report she wrote on software problems affecting industrial safety led to similar responses, and her career suffered.

She later took part in an unsuccessful mediation effort with TVA, the newspaper reported.

In 2007, TVA restarted Unit 1 at Browns Ferry. It was a massive undertaking. The reactor had gone online in the early 1970s, but had sat dormant since the mid-1980s after being shut down for safety reasons.

The five-year restart cost $1.9 billion and was completed in May 2007. President George W. Bush visited Browns Ferry in June 2007 to mark the recovery. But problems surfaced almost immediately, and the plant had five emergency shutdowns within six months in 2007.

Bradley said much has improved at Browns Ferry.

He said safety culture improvements were cited in an independent site study from 2011 to 2013 by Synergy Consulting Services.

“This showed significant improvement in the plant’s safety culture,” Bradley said. He said that included an improvement in dealing with the concerns of employees.

“Browns Ferry has made great strides in recent years to improve its safety culture and operations,” Bradley added. “Our focus is on establishing and sustaining operational excellence and continued improvement of our safety and operations culture with a goal of being a leader in the nuclear industry.’