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Davis-Besse safety culture is improving

04/16/03

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

Oak Harbor- Safety attitudes among workers and managers at the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear power plant are improving, a new survey shows. But whether that will be enough to convince regulators the plant can be safely operated is an unanswered question.

Plant managers meeting yesterday with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Davis-Besse oversight panel unveiled a March company poll they said shows Davis-Besse is successfully growing a "safety conscious work environment" and that employees have more faith in the company's intentions to put safety ahead of profits than they did when polled last August.

The Toledo-area plant has been idle 14 months for repairs after workers found a pineapple-size hole in the reactor's lid caused by coolant leaking from cracked control rod nozzles.

The company yesterday also gave regulators a peek at the results of an independent consultant's study assessing the overall "safety culture" at the plant. That assessment showed the commitment to safety at the corporate level, among plant managers and among workers needs attention, said Lew Myers, chief operating officer of plant owner FirstEnergy Corp.'s nuclear operating company. "It is similar to our own findings," Myers said, promising that the company is driving to improve the profile.

Although the NRC does not have hard regulations on safety culture or its subset, a safety conscious work environment, the agency has made them mandatory items on the long check list that Davis-Besse must complete to get permission to restart. The study and survey findings could add delays to the restart date now pushed back to mid or late June because of hardware problems still on the plant's fix-it plate.

About 79 percent of the workers at the Toledo-area plant - including 377 outside contractors and 665 permanent employees - filled out the voluntary survey, said Bill Pearce, a vice president with FirstEnergy's nuclear company.

Among the results:

Nearly 90 percent - up from 55 percent last year - now say plant managers clearly communicate their expectations about safety and quality.

More than 80 percent - up from 63 percent - said managers are now willing to listen to their problems.

Eighty-five percent - up from 71 percent - said they can raise any nuclear safety or quality concern without fear of retaliation.

Eighty percent - up from 57 percent - said the company's system of reporting potential safety problems is effective. And three-fourths said the resolution of the problems is effective, compared to 45 percent last August.

Eighty percent - up from 60 percent - now believe upper management supports the new program that enables employees to bring up problems anonymously if necessary.

But not all of the findings are as straightforward. When asked whether they were aware of someone being harassed or intimidated over the last six months for bringing up a safety concern, 15 percent of the whole group said yes, up from 12 percent last August.

Among permanent Davis-Besse employees, the trend was just the opposite, with 10 percent saying they knew of workers who have been harassed, down from 15 percent last summer.

The comparison of the two harassment findings troubled Jack Grobe, chairman of the NRC's Davis-Besse oversight panel, because it appears to show that up to 22 percent of the outside contractors - with highly specialized skills crucial to completing many of the repairs at the plant - are getting a lot of punishment over safety-related issues.

Since contractors have not been calling the agency to complain and since the company is still analyzing the survey results, Grobe said the results may not be correct. But he asked for further analysis.

Another issue to be resolved before restarting the reactor is the adequacy of the plant's radiation protection programs. Three workers were found to have inhaled radioactive particles in March 2002. After discovering sloppy safety procedures and planning for dangerous jobs, the NRC cited the company and ordered Davis-Besse managers to create new safety programs.

Last month a four-man NRC team of radiation protection experts not only reviewed Davis-Besse's new safety procedures but also roamed the plant to observe work in progress.

Though they found some problems, which the plant has since fixed, the team yesterday gave the plant's new procedures qualified approval - adding however that it will conduct three follow-up inspections between May and November.

"We have determined that satisfactory progress has been made," said Wayne Slawinski, a senior radiation protection expert and leader of the team. He said his inspectors believe the plant's new safety programs are "on target" to prevent future problems.

However, Grobe pointed out that not all of the plant's new safety procedures are actually in place. He said the oversight panel would decide during the next several weeks whether the company has done enough.

For complete coverage of Davis-Besse, go to www.cleveland.com/davisbesse/

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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