Nuclear power provides the biggest share of electricity generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority and could supply even more power in the future as the federal utility phases out its coal-fired power plants within the next 12 years to curb its carbon emissions linked with global climate change.
"Nuclear power is the largest producer of carbon-free energy and currently our three nuclear plants produce more than 40% of our baseload electricity," Paul Gain, the emergency management director at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, said in an interview Wednesday at the plant's training center. "By utilizing nuclear power, we can effectively help our country and our environment."
But while nuclear plants may not emit the carbon and other air pollutants of comparable fossil-fuel power plants, TVA's atomic reactors do pose a potentially more dangerous threat to those living near the plants in the unlikely event of a nuclear meltdown, terrorist attack or other accident at a plant that might release potentially fatal levels of radioactivity. To help nuclear plant neighbors understand about nuclear power and limit the risks of contamination if an accident occurs, TVA last week distributed more than 125,000 calendars to residents, businesses, schools and churches located within a 10-mile radius of TVA's three nuclear plants to detail emergency steps that might have to be taken if there was a nuclear plant accident.
Tim Holden, the head of the tech hazards division of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency responsible for safeguarding communities around nuclear plants, said TVA "has an exceptional safety record" and has worked to continuously improve its safety procedures in an industry that he said has upgraded its performance over time.
The last major alert that required the relocation of U.S. nuclear plant neighbors came in the 1979 near meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, regulators developed emergency warning systems, evacuation procedures and communication processes that all 94 U.S. nuclear reactors must meet.
Around the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Sodddy-Daisy, TVA has 113 sirens within a 10-mile radius of the plant to help warn residents if there is a radioactive leak.
As required by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, TVA and the state emergency agency join with local emergency response organizations to conduct regular drills on warning and evacuation procedures that could be employed if there was a major accident at the twin-reactor plant. TVA conducted four such drills this year, and next September the agencies are planning to conduct an even bigger test of its emergency response systems in a graded exercise to be evaluated and judged by both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A similar graded exercise was successfully conducted this fall around the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tennessee.
TVA also stocks potassium iodine tablets at the Sequoyah Health Center and other facilities within the emergency zone around the nuclear plants, although the utility no longer mails the tablets to each household as it once did. Sodium iodine tablets are to be taken only if there is a radioactive leak. Such tablets can be used to help block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid.
The procedures to protect the public if there was a nuclear meltdown or other accident are outlined in the annual calendars TVA publishes each year. TVA distributed more than 63,000 calendars last week in the 10-mile emergency evacuation zone around Sequoyah, where more than 106,000 people work and live. TVA also distributed about 19,000 calendars to residents around the Watts Bar plant and another 44,000 to all households within 10 miles of the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Tennessee.
Frank Schulte, operations training manager at TVA, said the public utility trains all of its nuclear plant operators on a rotating basis with drills, instruction and tests every five weeks at the simulated control room erected in the Sequoyah training center to model the actual control room in the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
"We work hard to train our reactor operators to be ready and able to respond to virtually any scenario that could develop," Schulte said in an interview.
TVA has improved its power performance at its nuclear plants, boosting its capacity factor at its three nuclear plants above 90% this year. But Schulte said "public safety is our No. 1 priority" and remains more critical than keeping the power flowing from the 1,200-megawatt capacity reactors at Sequoyah.
For the next generation of nuclear plants, TVA is moving toward small modular reactors, which will be much smaller, factory-built versions of the current generation of nuclear plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has proposed less stringent emergency notification regulations around the new smaller nuclear reactors once they are built and come on line in the next decade or two.
Under the proposed new Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety rules for small modular reactors, licensees such as TVA will be evaluated on their overall safety record. But utilities will not be required to have a 10-mile emergency zone with sirens and as elaborate of evacuation procedures in place as they now do since the smaller nuclear plants will not poise as great of a radioactive threat, Holden said.