March 16, 2011
Chief Operating Officer Bill McCollum answering frequently asked questions about TVA's nuclear power program and the situation in Japan.
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Letter to Employees — Understanding Events in Japan
It's difficult to conceive what the Japanese people are going through right now as they cope with an almost unimaginable natural disaster and its after-effects. Our prayers and heart-felt sympathies are with them as they struggle to recover.
One of those after-effects, of course, is the damage to Japanese nuclear plants, particularly units at the Fukushima Daiichi plant which bore the brunt of the tsunami. Like other nuclear plant operators around the world, TVA is keenly interested in learning more about the sequence of events that led to this crisis. The simple answer to "what happened?" is that the Japanese plants were overwhelmed by a combination of events well beyond anything they were designed to withstand. Complete answers will come when we have more facts…and that may be some time yet.
For one thing, it will take time to analyze the causes of the initial failures and the cascading series of problems that followed. But there is also a very real human component. I have read criticisms that a full accounting of the nuclear problems is slow to come out of Japan. As much as I would like to have more information, when you consider that many of those involved in the nuclear recovery may have lost their homes, families, friends, or even their entire community in the tsunami, I find it difficult to cast a lot of blame right now.
People in our part of the world naturally want to know the implications these events have for American nuclear plants and whether the problems in Japan could happen here. Those are very natural questions, and the answer is that it's most unlikely.
Here's what every TVA employee should know about our approach to nuclear safety, our response to events in Japan, and our readiness:
- The people of TVA train, prepare, and work every day to ensure the safety of our plants. We are not and cannot ever be complacent or arrogant about our knowledge, preparation, or capabilities. We have a solemn responsibility to those we serve, which demands that we constantly strive to learn and improve in all that we do, whether that means learning proactively by working together to develop better ways to do our work, or learning from the hard lessons of events such as the ones in Japan. We will learn all that we can, assess our capabilities critically, and take action to improve.
- Immediately after we received news from Japan, we set up a Command Center in our Nuclear Power Generation group to analyze what we do know, make reasonable inferences, and assess our capability and readiness to deal with significant natural disasters at TVA nuclear plants.
- It's important to recognize that our nuclear plants were not built in areas prone to large, damaging earthquakes. But they were constructed with earthquakes in mind and are designed to withstand ground acceleration much worse than any experienced in recorded history where they are located. Mercifully, we don't have tsunamis in our region, but our plants were designed to safely survive a very severe (and highly unlikely) flood. Additionally, we have procedures and equipment in place to allow our plants to cope with a loss of all electrical power. The safe and conservative operation of our nuclear plants remains paramount at TVA.
- People also are asking how this will affect the completion of Watts Bar and Bellefonte, and what it means for the future of the industry. The answer is—we don't know yet. While it remains to be seen how Congress and regulators will respond, I am sure there will be lessons to be learned from the events in Japan, and we will need to respond appropriately to those lessons, for existing and future plants. But because of inherent differences in the design, location, and vulnerability to natural disasters between the damaged Japanese nuclear plant and American plants, I do not believe it would be appropriate to react before facts are known and propose changing our energy strategy in this country. It was encouraging to hear Secretary of Energy Steven Chu say essentially the same thing yesterday.
I will summarize with some specifics about our actions so far:
- We have established a Central Response Center in Chattanooga with satellites at each of our plant sites. This center consolidates our assessment and response activities and provides a point-of-contact for inquiries.
- We are evaluating our readiness to deal with serious emergencies, including our procedures, training, facilities, and equipment. We are including in this evaluation our ability to respond to events that are beyond those anticipated in the plants' design (design-basis events).
- We are collecting and assessing data as it becomes available. We are comparing what we know about the situation in Japan to TVA's nuclear plants, and we are developing scenarios to use in future emergency exercises.
- We are evaluating our ability to respond to "combined events," such as a combination of earthquake and flood.
- We are recommending actions to be taken at each of our plants and documenting our readiness.
Finally, we are staying in very close contact with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, and other nuclear industry groups. We are pooling our knowledge and, as an industry, offering our expertise and assistance to Japan. This is an international problem—not just a problem for the Japanese—and the full effect that it will have on nations' economies, the environment, and the future of nuclear power is still not clear.
TVA will stay fully engaged as the world responds to events in Japan. Our goal is to make absolutely certain that our plants are safe. We will learn all that we can from these events and do what it takes to ensure that they remain safe.
Chief Operating Officer
Media Relations, Knoxville (865) 632-6000