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Davis-Besse broke rules, but fine not likely


John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

The Davis-Besse nuclear plant will get extra scrutiny from federal regulators, but its owner probably won't be fined for allowing four contract workers to walk out of the facility contaminated with radioactive particles last February.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission tentatively concluded yesterday that the plant's managers broke regulations during a refueling outage when they sent the workers to do routine repairs inside the reactor's huge steam generators without adequate preparation.

Davis-Besse personnel underestimated the potential risk of radioactivity inside the generators, the agency said, and failed to properly monitor the amount of radiation the workers were exposed to and how much their bodies retained.

Radiation levels already were elevated in the reactor's coolant system - including the steam generators - because some of the plant's radioactive fuel rods had been leaking. Nine hours before the repairs were to begin, an additional burst of radiation resulted from a new reactor shutdown method that was being tried to save time.

Health technicians didn't brief the workers on the increased radiation levels and didn't require them to wear protective breathing gear, reasoning that the bulky equipment would slow them down and cause longer exposure. Detectors showed the four men had particles on their clothing, and two had inhaled them.

It took FirstEnergy more than six months to determine that workers' exposure was under federal limits. However, the NRC judged that the plant's actions had "low to moderate safety significance" because the workers potentially could have received a much higher radiation dose.

The agency separately cited Davis-Besse for letting the workers exit the plant with radioactive particles on their clothes. But because the radiation levels presented "little potential health risk" to the workers or the public, the NRC ruled that violation had very low significance.

Plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. won't contest the findings, said spokesman Todd Schneider. The company has replaced Davis-Besse's radiation protection manager, reorganized the department, recalibrated some equipment and installed more sensitive monitors.

"The situation should never have occurred. Had we known the condition inside the steam generators, we would not have sent anybody in there," Schneider said.

"We would have waited until the radiation dissipated."

The NRC has given the idled plant maximum oversight since the discovery in March of a rust hole in the reactor's thick steel lid. Reactor coolant that had leaked undetected for years from lid cracks caused the unprecedented corrosion.

The flaws identified in Davis-Besse's radiation protection program have been added to the long list of other hardware and managerial defects that FirstEnergy must correct before the NRC will consider allowing the company to restart the reactor.

"We'll be doing additional inspections in these areas . . . to make sure they've fixed these problems," said Jack Grobe, the NRC official overseeing Davis-Besse's restoration.

FirstEnergy hopes to be ready for restart by the end of March.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:, 216-999-4138, 216-999-4842

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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