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Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant

The Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, located on the Tennessee River in Alabama near Decatur and Athens, Alabama, is a government-owned facility operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. With three reactors, it was the first nuclear plant to be built by the TVA, coming online in December of 1973. It was also the first such plant in the world to generate over a gigawatt of power. Currently, all three reactors are licensed for operation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission through the year 2033.

Troubled History

The Browns Ferry Plant has had its share of problems over the years. In 1975, its Unit One Reactor caught fire and required a year of repair work. In 1985, all three units had to be shut down because of “operational and management issues,” although Units Two and Three were back online by the mid-1990s.

Unit One was not restarted until 2007, however; to bring it back to operational status required five years and almost two billion dollars. After an initial mishap in which a hydraulic control pipe burst open and spilled approximately 600 gallons of coolant, the unit was finally brought online for the first time in over two decades in June of 2007. Since then, the reactor has been shut down five times; nonetheless, the TVA expects that the facility will recoup its expenses by 2012.

One cost-cutting measure at Browns Ferry involves the use of Blended Low Enriched Uranium (BLEU), which is made from nuclear fuel recovered from obsolete weapons systems.


The fire that damaged Unit One 1975 was caused by a worker who was using a candle while searching for air leaks, igniting a temporary cable seal. The fire stop at that time consisted of foamed plastic coated on both sides with flame retardant paint. Such paint in those days was likely to contain asbestos fibers.

Asbestos is not only a flame retardant; the “blue” and “brown” varieties are also highly resistant to electricity. Asbestos-containing materials were used extensively throughout the construction of power plants prior to 1980. Workers who have been negligently exposed should seek legal counsel from a mesothelioma lawyer.

A medical research study in Puerto Rico examined the chest x-rays of 1100 power plant workers; over 130 of them showed signs of asbestos disease. Power plants such as the Browns Ferry Facility are generally considered to be among the most hazardous industrial settings when it comes to asbestos exposure.

Through the 1970s, it was usual for factories, mills, power plants and worksites to be built with the mineral asbestos because it offered high resistance to transferring heat and electricity. It is ironic that protecting lives was almost always one of the main reasons behind using asbestos in places because the outcome was actually to put people in danger of serious illness due to inhalation of or other contact with asbestos. The reason so many employees have become ill from diseases such as "miner's lung" and cancer of the lungs is that when humans inhale or ingest asbestos fibers, the mineral embeds itself into the lungs; once there, the sharp, microscopic spikes damage cells. The most deadly of the asbestos-caused disorders is mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer that affects the lining of the chest cavity; it is a disease that usually kills within two years of diagnosis. Those who have been exposed to asbestos should seek medical attention at any of the mesothelioma clinics in their area.

Now, regulators understand the dangers associated with inhaling asbestos, and health and safety statutes ensure the well-being of people whose jobs put them in contact with this dangerous substance. Even up to the late 1900s, however, laborers all too often were told to toil in areas in which asbestos dust was not filtered; in most cases, safety procedures were not explained. In addition, workers brought asbestos home in their work garments when change rooms weren't offered at the workplace; the consequence of this was that the potentially deadly mineral also endangered offspring of those who worked with asbestos.

Because asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma don't appear until 20 years or more after a person first is exposed to asbestos, people who had jobs at asbestos-contaminated sites, as well as their partners and children, are encouraged to discuss their history of contact with asbestos with their doctors regardless of how far in the past they worked there.



Cabrera-Santiago, Manuel et al. “Prevalence of Asbestos-Related Disease Among Electrical Power Generation Workers in Puerto Rico.” Presentation at American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, 2007.

Tennessee Valley Authority. “Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.”

Tennessee Valley Authority. “TVA BLEU Project Named Energy Engineering Top Project of 2005.”

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