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Regional News | Article published Thursday, June 5, 2003
DAVIS-BESSE
All plants may get ‘attitude’ checks;
Task force studies what went wrong


By MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE SCIENCE EDITOR


ROCKVILLE, Md. - Mandatory "safety culture" inspections are a possibility at all of the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants as a result of corrosion problems found at the Davis-Besse plant, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission official said yesterday.

Although not specifically defined, the inspections assess the attitude that management and workers at a nuclear plant demonstrate toward safety concerns and enforcement of regulations.

Davis-Besse is only the second plant in the country to undergo such a review. The plant has been shut down since February, 2002, because a leak of corrosive water rusted a 4-inch by 5-inch hole about six inches deep through the massive steel structure, which holds nuclear fuel and radioactive water.

Jeff Jacobson, an inspection program manager for the NRC, said the culture inspections might be a possibility as a result of recommendations made by a "lessons learned" task force that studied what went wrong at Davis-Besse.

But one of the plant’s most prominent critics yesterday predicted that concerns about Davis-Besse’s safety culture probably would not be a serious barrier to plans by plant owner FirstEnergy to resume operations there in August.

"It’s doable, quite possible," said David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

UOC has chastised and goaded both FirstEnergy and the NRC for failings that underpinned the hole-in-the-reactor-head episode at Davis-Besse.

Lew Myers, FirstEnergy’s chief operating officer, cited early to mid August as the target date for returning Davis-Besse to commercial operation.

FirstEnergy says it loses about $800,000 for every summer day Davis-Besse is idle.

"As time goes on, fewer and fewer outstanding issues stand in the way," Mr. Lochbaum said, noting that FirstEnergy has mounted a massive effort to correct those problems.

He discussed the restart before a meeting at NRC headquarters here, in which agency staff discussed how lessons learned from the episode could be used to improve nuclear safety.

"High priority" action plan recommendations from the Lessons Learned Task Force call for the NRC to assemble information from domestic and foreign nuclear plants about boric acid corrosion and cracking of Alloy 600 and other nickel-based nozzles on reactor heads. The NRC should also inspect the adequacy of corrosion-control programs on pressurized water reactors - such as those at Davis-Besse and two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear plants.

The NRC has indicated it will decide when Davis-Besse restarts and has refused to comment on FirstEnergy’s projected restart date.

Another nuclear power critic at the meeting, Jim Riccio of Greenpeace suggested that the agency may be gun-shy.

"They’ve taken a lot of criticism because of Davis-Besse," said Mr. Riccio, Greenpeace’s nuclear power analyst. "The last thing NRC wants now is to allow the restart, and then two months later have another big incident occur."

Mr. Lochbaum, a former nuclear reactor operator, said the biggest remaining barrier involves faulty pumps designed to shoot super-hot, radioactive water back into the reactor, in case of a major break in Davis-Besse’s plumbing. Termed high-pressure injection pumps, they are the heart of a critical safety system built to prevent a meltdown of nuclear fuel.

FirstEnergy discovered that the pumps, which weigh 3 tons each, are faulty and apt to clog in an emergency.

FirstEnergy plans to ship the existing pumps to a Pittsburgh firm for modifications, which it thinks will take a month. Sitting in storage are two additional pumps, which FirstEnergy bought months ago from another utility. They would be FirstEnergy’s fallbacks if the existing pumps can’t be fixed.




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