TVA backs ice condenser safety

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Tennessee Valley Authority's proposed license amendment would change technical specifications to allow Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear plants to provide incore irradiation services for the U.S. Department of Energy.
   The change would allow TVA to insert up to 2,304 tritium-producing burnable absorber rods into the reactor core at Watts Bar to support DOE in maintaining the nation's tritium inventory for national defense purposes, according to TVA's amendment application. At Sequoyah, up to 2,256 tritium-producing rods would be inserted.
   Each core at Watts Bar and Sequoyah contain 193 fuel assemblies and each fuel assembly contains 264 fuel rods. In TVA's amendment request, the federal utility proposes to insert up to 24 rods in selected fuel assemblies adjacent to the 264 fuel rods.
   The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, watchdog for the public, has made a proposed determination that the amendment request involves no significant hazards consideration.
   According to NRC, the change in operations would not involve a significant increase in the probability or consequences of an accident previously evaluated; would not create the possibility of a new or different kind of accident from any previously evaluated; or involve a significant reduction in a margin of safety.
   Kenneth Bergeron, a physicist who retired in 1999 from Sandia National Laboratories, spent years simulating tests on reactor meltdowns as well as comparing and evaluating concrete and steel containments vs. those which rely on ice condensers to prevent a meltdown. Bergeron believes tritium production would make the ice condensers even more vulnerable to accident.
   But Bergeron is not the only one to raise safety issues about ice condensers.
   In April 1995, Curtis Overall, a 17-year-employee of TVA, reported problems to TVA management concerning Watts Bar ice condenser containment design. He received threats at work, was reassigned, and later fired. He raised the safety problems to the NRC, and after filing complaint against TVA for job discrimination, was reinstated in 1998 by a federal judge.
   John Moulton, TVA media relations manager, said tritium tests performed at Sequoyah were successful. "We've looked at it and don't see any impact on the operation of either plant. We see no problem with the production of power and the production of tritium."
   Moulton said the idea is to produce tritium in the same cycle as electricity is being produced, and the tests proved it could be done.
   Moulton contacted TVA's expert on ice condensers, who was on travel.
   "He said that as far as the containment on ice condensers, we have thoroughly examined that and there will be no impact whatsoever by the production of tritium on additional heat or whatever the question might be."
   The expert also said the amount of tritium to be produced is very small and has little impact, according to Moulton.
   "He said all of this is addressed in our license amendment which has been published by the NRC in the Federal Register."
   The rods will be inserted during an outage "and we will continue to generate electricity. There will be no appreciable impact on the power plant at all," Moulton said.
   TVA's reactors are scheduled to begin tritium production in the fall of 2003.