ATHENS, Ala. – A powerful tornado that came within a few miles of the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant last month wouldn't have splattered north Alabama with radiation even if it had hit a reactor directly, federal regulators told a skeptical crowd Tuesday during a meeting at the troubled installation.
The plant's Unit One has the lowest safety marks of any reactor in the nation because an important cooling valve was found inoperable last fall, and the close call with an EF-5 tornado that plowed across the region on April 27 heightened fears of a nuclear disaster at the plant, which is nearly identical to the Fukushima plant that was damaged after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
While Browns Ferry wasn't damaged in last month's near miss, operators had to shut down the reactors because they lost power from the outside when transmission lines were severed by the twister, which the weather service says had winds up to 210 mph.
Both area residents and nuclear opponents who attended a public review of the plant's safety record questioned whether Browns Ferry would have withstood a direct strike by a twister. Officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said such an event wasn't a threat to safety.
Victor McCree, NRC's regional administrator, said the plant's steel roof was designed with side panels that would come off the building during a tornado strike. That would reduce pressure inside and prevent spent fuel pellets and radioactive water in huge cooling pools from being sucked up by a twister and slung all over the countryside.
"It's not a concern," McCree said.
The assurances didn't satisfy people who have seen images of buildings that were leveled across Alabama when dozens of twisters hit last month, killing 238 people statewide.
"If you're not concerned you should be," said Nancy Hughes, of Florence.
Kathleen Ferris said both NRC and TVA have a credibility problem.
"If you really believe an EF-5 would not damage those spent fuels, you need to visit Tuscaloosa or Joplin, Mo.," said Ferris, of Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Used fuel from Browns Ferry's three reactors is stored in huge concrete-and-steel pools beneath the metal roof. TVA spokesman Ray Golden said the water is 40 feet deep, so there's little chance of fuel being uncovered by a tornado even in a worst-case scenario.
"The water is only mildly radioactive; the fuel itself is the concern, and it is protected," he said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Browns Ferry operated safety last year, but there were issues that included a problem with a valve on a system that would be used to cool the reactor during an accident. Officials aren't sure how long the valve had been inoperable.
Because of that problem, which was uncovered in October, the NRC placed the plant in an oversight category lower than every other plant in the country. Charlie Stancil, an NRC inspector who oversees Browns Ferry, said the ranking means the plant will get extra attention indefinitely.
"Unit One has the problems, but we will be giving them more attention plantwide," said Stancil.
Browns Ferry, where a worker with a candle started a fire that damaged plant controls in 1975, was idled for more than two decades because of safety concerns. The third and final reactor to restart went back into operation in 2007.