A subcontractor employee at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant has been charged with lying about power system inspections at the only site in the nation where a reactor is being built, prosecutors said Thursday.
Matthew David Correll, 31, of Hixson was charged in a two-count indictment with making false statements. Prosecutors said Correll lied about measuring cables that would supply power to a safety system at the reactor site.
The indictment shows the charges, which officials said would not delay the reactor's construction, stem from paperwork filed in August 2010.
Correll, an electrician, appeared Thursday before a federal magistrate in Chattanooga and was released pending a May 23 trial. His attorney, Myrlene Marsa, declined comment.
A conviction carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
U.S. Attorney Bill Killian at a news conference in Knoxville declined to discuss a motive and said details would be presented in court when the case goes to trial. He would not say if the investigation was continuing or if there might be other arrests. He and TVA officials said the case poses no harm to the public.
Killian did not mention the nuclear emergency in Japan — where a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami severely damaged a nuclear reactor — other than to say the allegations took place long before the earthquake. TVA has said since the earthquake that its six reactors, including the Watts Bar Unit 1 reactor that came online in 1996, are safe.
TVA nuclear executive Ashok Bhatnagar said at the news conference that the falsified paperwork was found during normal reviews of the employee's work at the plant, where a Unit 2 reactor is about 70 percent completed near Spring City, between Knoxville and Chattanooga.
He declined to speculate about what might have happened if the phony paperwork had not been discovered.
Correll works for Williams Specialty Services, a subcontractor on the $2.5 billion, 1,200-megawatt reactor project expected to be finished by October 2012. The company's location and contact information could not be found, and TVA could not immediately provide it.
The charges single out one worker, and the company as a whole is doing good work, Bhatnagar said. He said TVA would continue working with the subcontractor.
TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said Correll's employer has about 80 workers at the Watts Bar project. He said the criminal case would not interrupt construction.
"It's not anticipated to slow the pace at all," he said.
The arrest comes two months after an unrelated Nuclear Regulatory Commission letter cited TVA "errors and omissions" in a Watts Bar project fire protection report and excessive delays in providing information. The letter called on TVA to promptly supply information for its review of an application for a reactor operating license.
Soon after the letter was received, site vice president Masoud Bajestani abruptly left his job overseeing the construction project. TVA wouldn't provide details about his departure, calling it a personnel matter, but the utility has contended it wasn't related to the NRC letter.
TVA said in February that it was addressing the NRC concerns and still expected to have the reactor done on time.
TVA, the nation's largest public utility, supplies power to customers in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.