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Davis-Besse workers claim harassment

01/31/03

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

Chicago- FirstEnergy Corp. officials believe that by the end of March they will have hard evidence that the safety climate at the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant has improved enough to justify restarting the reactor.

But federal regulators said yesterday the utility's ambitious timetable to have the plant making electricity again by April probably isn't realistic. They also pledged to look into a surprise complaint that several Davis-Besse workers were recently harassed for raising safety concerns - an allegation that, if true, could call into question the significant progress FirstEnergy says it has made.

FirstEnergy officials said they were unaware of any recent incidents like those described by Howard Whitcomb during a meeting yesterday between the company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Whitcomb, a former Davis-Besse employee and NRC inspector, told members of the panel overseeing the repair of the plant near Toledo that he was relaying complaints at the request of several employees who "consider the current work environment hostile."

In the last two weeks, Whitcomb told the panel, some Davis-Besse workers who raised safety concerns or stopped work for safety reasons had their tires slashed, were reprimanded by their supervisors and were verbally threatened by colleagues.

Jack Grobe, who chairs the NRC panel, said that Whitcomb "had no firsthand information" but that the agency will be "following up" on his comments after meeting with him to get more information.

FirstEnergy officials also pledged to investigate. "I'm not aware of any incident in the last two weeks," said company spokesman Todd Schneider, although a Davis-Besse employee's tires were deflated last summer.

"We did a thorough investigation," Schneider said. The victim "asked us not to take it any further. We took corrective action to make sure it wouldn't happen again."

Whether FirstEnergy has been able to improve the eroded safety values that allowed boric acid to chew an undetected pineapple-sized rust hole through the reactor's thick steel lid is perhaps the most important remaining obstacle to winning NRC permission to restart. A major element of a plant's "safety culture" is that workers feel free to raise safety concerns without fear of reprisal.

Yesterday's meeting was for FirstEnergy to make its case that Davis-Besse's safety culture is on the mend.

The centerpiece is a series of employee interviews, a plantwide survey, workplace visits and a review of company policies that a four-person team led by industrial psychologist Sonja Haber will conduct. The study, which will gauge the effectiveness of nearly six months of FirstEnergy's efforts to improve the safety culture, should provide a "snapshot" of conditions now and a benchmark for progress.

That work, plus other inspections and a weeklong test to determine whether there are any coolant leaks from the bottom of the reactor, must be done before the NRC decides if the plant is ready to resume operating. FirstEnergy nuclear division president Robert Saunders said yesterday that the company still believes Davis-Besse can be restarted in April.

Grobe said the NRC's pre- restart inspections are "not in the near future." Jim Dyer, who as head of the agency's Midwest office will make the restart decision, said FirstEnergy can't set a realistic timetable until after the reactor leak test in early March. An April 1 startup "assumes zero defects" during the preliminary activities, he said.

Haber underscored the tight schedule when she said her project will be finished by late March. Her team intends to conduct one-on-one interviews with at least 10 percent of Davis-Besse's nearly 1,000 employees beginning next week. After that, as much as 90 percent of the staff will complete written surveys.

Haber said her team will be able to give the plant a 30-page report card showing "how the organization is functioning right now" on safety culture by ferreting out what its workers value and believe. "We have used these methods at 18 different organizations, including 12 nuclear plants," she said.

One immediate sticking point identified by the NRC is whether the company will get the report, and have a chance to challenge its findings, before the agency does. Grobe said he intended to make sure the panel sees the data as they are developed - and not wait until FirstEnergy releases them.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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