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Wednesday, 
October 08, 2003

 



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Regional News | Article published Wednesday, October 8, 2003
NRC slams Besse, says problems not normal
FirstEnergy execs offer their apologies

By TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER


PORT CLINTON - One by one, FirstEnergy Corp. officials yesterday delivered carefully worded regrets about the substandard performance of Davis-Besse control room operators during the nuclear plantís crucial pressure test.

Officials tried their best to shed a positive light on a situation that has the potential to be a major setback, telling a Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight panel that the company had acted conservatively by twice halting the test and ordering remedial training.

They said that workers learned from the mistakes and that Davis-Besse will be a better plant in the long run.

But Jack Grobe, the NRC panelís chairman, told FirstEnergy its problems run deeper than the control room.

"Itís really not the operators. Itís the organization," he said, explaining that operators rely on the support of others. "It would be like blaming the offensive performance of a football team on the quarterback."

He later told reporters the kind of problems Davis-Besse had with its operators during the recently concluded test would not happen twice a year at a "normal" nuclear plant. At Davis-Besse, they happened twice in little more than a week.

"Itís important to state that, at this point, this is not a normal operating plant," Mr. Grobe said.

He declined to speculate about when the plant could resume operation, other than to state repeatedly that FirstEnergyís goal for a late November startup is probably unrealistic. Thatís because the utility still needs to regain NRC confidence in nonhardware areas, such as operator performance and workplace atmosphere, he said.

One area resident, Joseph Korff, told the NRC he wanted to have plenty of advance notice because he wants to be in Florida when it happens. Mr. Korff, an engineer who lives half the year in Vermilion, Ohio, said he has been familiar with Davis-Besse since he started boating on Lake Erie in 1968. But he said he has little faith in FirstEnergy. "It doesnít matter what dates FirstEnergy puts up. This plant wonít start up until this panelís ready," Mr. Grobe told him. "The plant wonít restart until itís safe."

Also last night, a letter was submitted on behalf of Kelleys Island residents who want Davis-Besse shut permanently.

The letter was written to H. Peter Burg, FirstEnergy chief operating officer, and James Caldwell, the NRCís Midwest regional director, by an organization called the Kelleys Island Citizens Group.

It claims to have a petition with signatures from 150 Kelleys Island residents who are opposed to the plantís restart. Its opposition stems, in part, from evacuation fears in the event of a nuclear accident.

Two performance issues stood out during the test, the utilityís self-described "dress rehearsal" for restart. First, a valve in the emergency core flood tank opened unexpectedly during heat-up on Sept. 14. Second, a set of four control rods were automatically inserted during cool-down on Sept. 30.

Both stemmed from operator error and resulted in having the exercise halted so crews on duty could be removed for remedial training. In the case of the latter event, plant systems responded as designed, but operators erred by cooling down the plant too quickly. That caused a sudden increase in pressure.

"Iím deeply disappointed in these performance issues," Mike Roder, manager of Davis-Besseís plant operations, told the NRC. He said crews will be restructured to achieve a better balance of strengths for each shift. The problems marred an otherwise successful test, NRC and FirstEnergy officials said.

Davis-Besseís leakage was the smallest in the plantís 26-year history. According to Lew Myers, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co.ís chief operating officer, it equated to a mere 0.76 teaspoons a minute.

The containment roomís ultrasensitive moisture sensors - made in France and never before used in the United States - worked fine. They are to help FirstEnergy avoid corrosion on Davis-Besseís reactor head by giving officials up-to-the-minute conditions on the roomís moisture.

The plant has been idle since Feb. 16, 2002, because of numerous equipment and management issues. The initial focus was a football-shaped cavity in the steel reactor head, the worst rust problem of its kind in U.S. nuclear history.

The pressure test showed the replacement head works. Though the NRC is still testing for leakage along the reactor bottom, FirstEnergy said it did not find any leakage. Issues identified with containment spray pumps, thermal overloads, and an auxiliary feed-water pump are being corrected.

At least one of four reactor coolant pumps has an inner gasket seal leak and experienced a pressure drop. Those pumps, which circulate coolant water over the reactor during normal operations, were the focus of a federal whistleblower complaint filed in February by Andrew Siemaszko, a former Davis-Besse engineer.

Mr. Siemaszko alleged he was fired for insisting all four pumps be rebuilt, something that had not occurred since 1986. The pumps have a 20-year lifespan. FirstEnergy has rebuilt one pair and is planning to rebuild the other pair during an outage.

NRC officials said theyíre not sure whether the leak is enough to warrant repairs now.

Those in the audience included Sam Collins, the NRCís deputy executive director of operations. Mr. Collins said he heard nothing unusual yesterday "for a plant thatís been shut this long."

In his former role as the NRCís nuclear reactor regulation director, Mr. Collins was in charge of licensing decisions for the nationís 103 nuclear plants. He was the official at the NRCís headquarters who let Davis-Besse continue operating six weeks longer than some agency officials wanted, by failing to enforce a shutdown order NRC attorneys had approved in the fall of 2001. He now reports to William Travers, the NRCís executive director of operations.

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse



More articles on this subject Ľ
FirstEnergy to give forecast to PUCO today 10/07/2003
TMI neighbors seek meeting 10/04/2003
FirstEnergy says reactor cool-down crew erred 10/03/2003
NRC expresses doubt about plant operators 10/02/2003
Davis-Besse test due to end Monday night 09/27/2003

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