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October 03, 2003

 



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Regional News | Article published Friday, October 3, 2003
FirstEnergy says reactor cool-down crew erred Performance issues disappoint regulators

By TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER


On the eve of making its big pitch about safety culture, FirstEnergy Corp. encountered another setback at Davis-Besse.

The Blade learned yesterday that operators who were trying to cool down Davis-Besse’s nuclear reactor system on Tuesday night erred by moving too quickly, causing a sudden increase in pressure in the plant.

Sensing there was a problem, the reactor protection system activated at 9:34 p.m., automatically inserting all control rods into the reactor. The plant had been in a nonnuclear mode, but some of the control rods had been withdrawn from the core for Davis-Besse’s week-long pressure test.

Results of that test are crucial for regaining the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s confidence, officials have said.

"The long and short of it is, the equipment worked, so there was human error," Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said.

The company is investigating what went wrong and has ordered remedial training for the crew on duty - the second crew ordered to receive extra training for problems related to the pressure test.

"The point is the operators didn’t exercise enough control over the system," he said. "It was preventable."

Jack Grobe, chairman of the NRC panel overseeing FirstEnergy’s restart efforts, said the agency is disappointed by the latest human-performance issues.

Heating up and cooling down a nuclear plant is a complex process, yet it is "the kind that operators should be able to handle without any problems," he said.

The crew on duty should have made adjustments for the fact that Davis-Besse’s reactor coolant system would cool faster than normal because the plant has been idle for nearly 20 months, Mr. Grobe said.

"Those kind of things in a well-run nuclear power plant don’t happen," he said. "The bottom line is they [control room operators] weren’t paying close enough attention to their indicators."

He declined to say how such performance issues could affect the company’s restart plans. "We will talk in quite a bit of detail about this on Tuesday," he said, referring to his oversight panel’s monthly meeting. That meeting, open to public observation, will begin at 2 p.m. at the Camp Perry clubhouse, near Port Clinton. It is to be followed by a 7 p.m. public question-and-answer session.

The performance errors occurred the night before a team of FirstEnergy officials delivered its most extensive presentation ever about Davis-Besse’s safety culture to the NRC.

The company spent nearly five hours at the agency’s Midwest regional office in Lisle, Ill., telling officials about efforts the company has undertaken to improve morale and encourage employees to be more forthcoming about safety issues.

The NRC has said it will not authorize restart until it sees proof of an improved workplace atmosphere.

Passing references were made to the Tuesday night episode during the safety culture meeting near Chicago, including one about how Scott Thomas, the NRC’s senior resident inspector at Davis-Besse, was late for the Wednesday meeting because he had been called out to the plant Tuesday night. No details were provided until yesterday.

James Caldwell, the NRC’s Midwest regional administrator, told FirstEnergy at the conclusion of that meeting that fundamentals need to be stressed and that good operators are at the heart of all good nuclear plants.

Todd Schneider, another company spokesman, said the focus on human performance issues will be renewed now that many of the plant’s hardware issues have been addressed.

Davis-Besse had just finished its week-long pressure test Tuesday morning, a test company officials have described as a dress rehearsal for restart. The plant was in its early stages of cooldown when the problems arose that night.

Mr. Wilkins said company officials ordered a temporary halt to the cool-down process. Last night, the plant was at 490 degrees and 2,000 pounds per square inch of pressure - slightly less than its test level of 532 degrees and 2,155 psi. Its normal operating levels are in excess of 600 degrees and at about 2,200 psi.

The company has not wavered from its intent to have Davis-Besse restarted this fall, though even under a best-case scenario it did not expect that to happen for four to six weeks after the pressure test was completed, Mr. Wilkins said.

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.comdavisbesse




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