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Better checks ordered at nuclear plants

02/12/03

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

Nuclear power plants will have to inspect more often and more thoroughly for signs of rust and leaks on their reactor lids because of the problems at the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, federal regulators have decided.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered Davis-Besse and the nation's 68 other similarly designed plants yesterday to use either sound waves or electric current to check for leaks in the metal sleeves in the reactor lids that allow the control rods to move in and out of the reactor core.

At Davis-Besse, cracks in those sleeves, called nozzles, coupled with poor inspection and maintenance, resulted in corrosive coolant residue remaining on the lid for years. The acidic sludge ate through the 6-inch-thick lid - except for a thin stainless steel layer - bringing the plant close to a major nuclear accident.

The order requires the oldest and most leak-susceptible plants to do the most rigorous inspections at each refueling, typically every two years. They must visually examine the lid for signs of rust and use one of the two instrument-aided methods to check the nozzles.

Newer plants, or plants that have replaced their original lids as Davis-Besse now has, can choose between the visual or instrument-aided inspections at each refueling but must do a high-tech inspection at least every other refueling.

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the order supersedes voluntary inspections the agency had requested last August.

Reaction from the industry was muted. "These inspections range from $30,000 up to $1 million," said Alex Marion of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade organization. "I think it is a manageable issue."

Problems with the emergency sump at Davis-Besse are also pushing the government to issue new standards that will affect every similar nuclear plant.

The agency will soon ask that plants assess the capabilities of their emergency sumps, said Jon Hopkins, a member of the NRC panel overseeing the rebuilding of the Toledo-area reactor. The oversight committee met yesterday with Davis-Besse owner FirstEnergy Corp. at facilities at Camp Perry, near the reactor.

Davis-Besse's engineers recently redesigned and enlarged their plant's sump after determining that its mesh covering could clog with debris during a catastrophic coolant leak, starving the pumps that recirculate the coolant and increasing the chances that the reactor core might melt.

Though Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy's nuclear company, insisted yesterday that the original sump met design standards for its day, the agency says it was not installed or maintained properly.

Oversight panel chairman Jack Grobe and other members pressed Myers and Davis-Besse engineering director James Powers for an analysis of what might have happened to the sump - and the plant - had the thin stainless steel liner beneath the hole in the reactor lid burst.

Powers has said he believes the sump would not have clogged in that scenario. But he promised the study before next month's meeting with the NRC. The agency must also inspect the radical new sump, now nearly complete, before it will allow the company to restart the reactor.

"Safety culture," or a measure of worker and management attitudes about safety, is another area the government wants FirstEnergy to prove it has fixed before it will allow restart.

Attitudes are improving, said Steve Loehlein, manager of Davis-Besse's quality assurance program. None of the employees interviewed in a random survey of 10 percent of the plant's work force last week said management had retaliated against them for reporting a safety problem, said Loehlein. But about 90 percent said they had heard that someone had faced retaliation.

Though reports of safety problems were not handled well in the past, Loehlein said the new Davis-Besse management has reversed that. "Over 95 percent told us they believed management wants employees to report problems," he said. The results, though preliminary, indicate the company has made progress since the last worker survey, in August.

Plain Dealer Washington bureau chief Stephen Koff contributed to this report.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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