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Blaze Heavily Damages Unused Cooling Tower At Nuclear Plant

May 23, 1996

ATHENS, Ala. (AP) _ A fire today heavily damaged an unused cooling tower outside the Browns Ferry nuclear plant, site of a string of blazes and other safety problems in the 1970s and 1980s.

A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, Barbara Martocci, said the fire broke out about 2:25 a.m. and did not affect either of the two reactors operating at the north Alabama plant.

Ms. Martocci said workers were replacing some of the tower’s structural material and working on fan units at the top. But it was not immediately known whether the work was linked to the fire.

``We’re going to have an investigation beginning immediately,″ she said.

The fire was only the latest in a string of problems at Browns Ferry.

Before the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, the NRC had labeled a 1975 fire at Browns Ferry the nation’s worst nuclear power accident.

The Browns Ferry plant did not generate any power for six years beginning in March 1985, when TVA agreed to shut it down because of safety concerns. When it was shut down, Browns Ferry had the nation’s largest nuclear generating capacity, totaling about 3,300 megawatts for the three reactors.

Later, two of its units resumed operation.

A 1987 fire that did minor damage inside the Unit 2 reactor was blamed on arson.

In today’s fire, about 80 percent of the wooden tower was destroyed, Ms. Martocci said. TVA fire units and local fire departments were pouring water on hot embers at daybreak.

A bank of cooling towers is located several hundred yards away from the plant. Another of the structures burned in 1986 following an electrical short circuit, with the loss estimated at $5 million. The structures are used to cool off the water that keeps the reactors cool.

The cooling tower that burned today had not been used since the early 1980s, Ms. Martocci said.

Because of the safety violations at Browns Ferry from 1980 through 1986, the NRC fined the utility more than $1 million. During the shutdown, TVA instituted a new management structure at the northern Alabama plant. About 1,000 improvements have been made in the interim at a cost of $1.3 billion, according to TVA officials.

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