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  Friday, March 7, 2003

 Local News

D-B gives industry 'black eye'
NRC still reeling after corrosion discovery

Staff writer

CARROLL TOWNSHIP -- When workers found massive amounts of corrosion in the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor head last March, it sent a shock wave through the nuclear industry.

It's an industry, too, that's been controversial since its inception in the late 1950s and can't take too many more black eyes before consumers lose confidence, said Nuclear Scientist Dave Lochbaum, who works for the Washington watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists.

"They need to learn as much as they can so they don't have more Davis-Besse surprises down the road," Lochbaum said during a recent telephone interview. "It doesn't take too many more of these before confidence in the industry begins to wane."

As rattling as the discovery at the Carroll Township plant was, however, the industry and its regulators felt tremors far before unearthing the hole that could hold a football at FirstEnergy's power station.

The three nuclear units at Oconee in South Carolina first gained industry attention when inspections revealed what is called circumferential cracking in nozzles on the reactor heads in August 2001.

That cracking -- which worst case scenario would

creep part or all the way around a large circular nozzle -- had never been seen before on the reactor head, Lochbaum said.

"There was, prior to Davis-Besse, the thought that if you had damaged nozzles the worst thing that would happen ... would be ejection of the nozzle," he said.

That means the nozzle would have essentially popped off like a cork, allowing coolant water to gush from the reactor.

Now, however, Davis-Besse has shown that the circumfrential cracking can lead to other problems than just the potential for an ejected nozzle.

"They found even small leakage could damage the head itself," he added.

Compounded by at least six years and hundreds of pounds of solidified boric acid crystallizing on the reactor, what likely started as a small amount of corrosion turned into a hole considered massive by nuclear industry standards.

The findings at the Carroll Township facility sent the NRC into a tailspin, at first prompting officials to send out requests to all similarly built power plants asking for responses with inspection reports and potentials for comparable findings.

Then, early this year, the NRC required all like plants to conduct interim inspections of the reactor heads -- a consequence brought on by reports that Davis-Besse's management knew of the boric acid on the reactor head but did little to clean it off.

"It expanded the scope a little bit of what the NRC was doing and accelerated the pace of what was happening," Lochbaum said. "The same work would have been done, just not as fast."

The findings bucked not only what the nuclear industry expected to happen to aging nuclear plants (Davis-Besse turns 25 this year) but emphasized that scientists are still dealing with a relatively new technology.

"It's had a lot of impact in many ways," FirstEnergy Chief Financial Officer Richard H. Marsh said recently during an interview at his office in Akron. "The whole way this evolved, it challenged the ways of thinking because with the technology it wasn't supposed to be possible."

FirstEnergy senior management officials, too, have been active in speaking to the rest of the industry about the difficulties Davis-Besse has been through and how workers are fixing the problems -- not only technically, but on the human performance side as well.

The impact wasn't only on those who owned the plants -- although many are now taking a good, hard look at the critical safety systems that are used in the event of an emergency.

On the regulatory side, the NRC has tried to learn a few lessons of its own from Davis-Besse.

It commissioned a Lessons Learned Task Force to find out what happened on the regulatory side and come up with recommendations for fixes.

"Overall, that's a positive effort on the part of the staff," said Alex Marion, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying group for the nuclear industry. "We're planning to engage them when they're delineating their action plans and implementing them.

"The ultimate impact has yet to be determined, but we'll just have to work through that."

The task force submitted a list of 51 recommendations to its commission. Out of those, 49 were accepted.

"We have some hope that the 49 recommendations the NRC has made will be implemented to make sure there's not a Davis-Besse incident down the road," Lochbaum said. "The best way to avoid that happening down the road is to figure out everything that contributed to this near miss and eliminate every one of those contributors."

But Marion said the industry has to take hold of the situation far sooner -- before it gets into the hands of the NRC.

"We're positioning the industry to be proactive instead of reactive," Marion said. "Quite frankly, we think the industry leadership will agree to it."

The entire industry and its peripheral supporters have been going through an intense introspection, resulting in self-assessments and plans to deal with "material performance" problems, such as metals that degrade and nozzles that crack.

"It was quickly realized that the industry has, for the most part been reactive -- by that I mean reactive to an event in a plant that causes the NRC to raise questions," he said. "We realized we need to put in place a process to allow the industry to be more proactive."

The essence of time, however, may be working against the nuclear industry.

Lochbaum said a recent study showed a decade ago only a third of the NRC inspections teams heading out into the field were dedicated to investigating age-related problems. Since 1997, however, more than two-thirds of those teams were looking at malfunctions based on the age of the plant.

"We had made a presentation to the commission last May, shortly after the (Davis-Besse) discovery," Lochbaum said. "We suggested aging was becoming more and more of a problem -- but not necessarily a show stopper ...

"The near misses are in some respects a lagging indicator showing what already happened. They also show where the focus may be tomorrow."

Originally published Friday, March 7, 2003

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