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Nuclear safety hearings to begin


John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

Today, in a glassy office tower in suburban Chicago, federal regulators will get their first look at how FirstEnergy Corp. intends to prove that safety attitudes at its troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant are improving.

The company's pitch to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is crucial for both parties. If FirstEnergy is to stay on its needle-tight schedule to resume making electricity at the plant near Toledo by April 1, it must show hard evidence that Davis-Besse's badly frayed "safety culture" is on the mend.

For the NRC's part, the agency is making only its second foray ever into judging whether wholesale fixes to a plant's safety culture - its employees' commitment to prevent accidents and protect the public - are adequate.

The NRC's approach to safety culture oversight at Davis-Besse is less aggressive, and its formal assessment is beginning much later in the process than the other comparable case, at a Connecticut nuclear plant in the late 1990s.

The NRC's handling of Davis-Besse is being closely watched by anti-nuclear activists, safety experts, the nuclear industry and members of Congress.

At the Millstone facility near New London, Conn., the agency took the unprecedented step of ordering the utility to bring in outside help to overhaul the plant's safety culture. The advisory team was responsible for verifying that Millstone's fixes were effective. It was paid for by the plant's operator but reported its findings to the NRC and the public. Its double-checking began nearly a year before the plant won permission to reopen.

The agency says the substantial differences in approach are justified - that, unlike Millstone, Davis-Besse's problems are not beyond the NRC's expertise to evaluate and the company's ability to fix, with supervision. But the disparities worry some Millstone veterans who believe Davis-Besse's safety culture problems are worse than the Connecticut plant's.

"I'm not saying [Davis-Besse] needs an order like Millstone, but it needs more response than it's getting" from the NRC, said Paul Blanch, an engineer who was fired for raising safety concerns at Millstone and who was later rehired as ombudsman to help restore its safety culture.

It has been almost a year since Davis-Besse workers found a pineapple-size rust hole had breached the reactor lid unnoticed, and five months since FirstEnergy acknowledged that a safety culture breakdown was the underlying cause.

By waiting until now to see how FirstEnergy plans to track safety culture improvements, and by not having its own adviser on board to help the review, the NRC risks the credibility of its effort, said Billie Garde, who was on the independent consultant team at Millstone.

"The NRC relies on workers to raise potential safety risks," said Garde, a nationally known attorney who defends whistleblowers. "The workers are the eyes and ears to protect the public. If they see the NRC is simply going to give lip service to this [safety culture repair] issue, then the work force may not raise safety issues themselves, which got us in the fix in the first place."

Although the NRC rejected as unnecessary a Millstone-type order making FirstEnergy have an independent safety culture evaluation, that hardly means the agency has gone soft on the issue or waited too long, said Jack Grobe, who heads the NRC's Davis-Besse oversight panel.

Since FirstEnergy's initial steps in August to turn its culture around, NRC inspectors have been checking the effectiveness of that work, Grobe said. They have tracked the reports written by Davis-Besse workers to flag potential safety problems, looking for thoroughness and prompt resolution. They have viewed summaries of two FirstEnergy surveys probing workers' confidence in raising safety issues. They have monitored changes in the plant's employee complaint program, and noted that a large percentage of workers have bypassed it and gone directly to the NRC.

Grobe, a veteran of rehabilitating problem plants, sees clear progress at Davis-Besse. When FirstEnergy found evidence of possible leaks in the reactor's bottom, it proposed a rigorous weeklong test without NRC prodding, even though it could delay the plant's restart. And the company is spending millions to upgrade emergency systems that keep the reactor supplied with coolant, though the current equipment appears adequate.

But there are some examples of bad behavior as well: A worker in July formally complained that he and his colleagues were given inadequate time and guidance to complete important safety tasks, and that their bosses threatened "someone will lose their job" if the work wasn't done quickly.

And last fall, according to an NRC report, a Davis-Besse worker warned others that agency inspectors were around - an indication that at least one employee wanted to hinder, not help, identify safety concerns.

Those are useful snapshots, but not comprehensive indicators, said oversight panel vice-chairman Bill Dean.

"It's a mixed set of anecdotes, and that's not enough . . . to get a picture," Dean said. "Jack and I have been frustrated with [FirstEnergy] occasionally. We should have been having some better dialogue, some performance measures and things that can be quantified. That should have happened before now.

"[But] it's only late in the game if you say that restart is next month. It's not next month, or the month after - it's when [FirstEnergy] completes everything that needs to be completed."

The timing of the NRC's review has as much to do with the company as the agency, said Grobe. "Until they defined what they would be doing, it was very difficult for us to respond," he said. "Our [role] is oversight of what the company is doing."

Why the agency has taken a less forceful route here when it barreled into action in Connecticut is driven by the differences in the situation, said Grobe and other NRC officials - and by the politics of the times, critics added.

"Every case is different," said NRC Executive Director William Travers, who ran the special office that oversaw Millstone. "If I had to pinpoint one element at Millstone that differs substantially, it was the concern we had as an agency that many employees might be retaliated against."

Travers, Grobe and other NRC officials point to a years-long pattern of Millstone's harassment of workers who raised safety concerns, a practice that hundreds of thousands of dollars in NRC-levied fines did not remedy.

At Davis-Besse, employees simply didn't flag many safety worries, and those that were filed were not quickly or properly resolved.

"It's more subtle," Travers said. While Davis-Besse had safety culture problems, the lack of a pattern of intimidation merited a less drastic response.

However, the absence of harassment may actually signal an even worse situation - and the need for more help - at Davis-Besse than at Millstone, said Garde, Blanch and other observers.

"Millstone employees never stopped raising safety concerns," Garde said. "They raised them externally, to the press, to Congress, to citizen groups." Whether due to complacency or fear of retaliation, at Davis-Besse "they did not raise them."

Although the NRC dismisses it as a factor, the agency was under enormous public pressure to wrest major reforms out of Millstone. The regulatory mess was the subject of a withering Time Magazine cover story and numerous newspaper articles.

The agency's top brass have been much less visible and accessible to the public this time around, though Travers said the commissioners are kept "frequently informed."

The NRC's Millstone mandate prompted a strong industry backlash that some suggest may also have affected the agency's approach at Davis-Besse. The order cost plant owner Northeast Utilities millions in consulting fees. The industry's trade organization, the Nuclear Energy Institute, concedes that unique orders like Millstone are sometimes necessary, although it didn't take a position on the Millstone matter. However, insiders say the industry reviled the NRC's action as overkill and meddling in management.

"It's not a secret that the industry opposed the Millstone order, thought it was unnecessary and never wants to have it again," Garde said.

At Davis-Besse, the agency has opted to let FirstEnergy set its own safety culture course. The NRC intends to monitor progress, using the company's and its own yardsticks. The agency most likely will hire its own consultant to help in the evaluation; FirstEnergy has retained Pennsylvania psychologist Sonja Haber.

During February, she will review company policies, interview managers, survey all employees and observe work situations. When Haber's work ends in mid-March, she will pass on her safety culture assessment tools so FirstEnergy can continue the job.

"The main thrust of her work is going to help us in the future," FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said.

An independent consultant reporting to the NRC but responsible for the public's safety would still be the best solution, contends Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a watchdog group.

Because the agency and the company both failed to catch Davis-Besse's safety culture breakdown, Gunter said, "it is even more important that a third party come in, for the sake of public confidence."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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