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Besse's emergency system bad from start


John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

The Davis-Besse nuclear reac- tor's emergency cooling system has been flawed since the plant opened 26 years ago and could have failed when needed most, during a catastrophic coolant leak, according to a new analysis.

Had the reactor's rust-damaged lid given way, or a major pipe ruptured, the consequences could have been more serious than experts first thought, and worse than the plant owner has publicly acknowledged until now.

The report, prepared by FirstEnergy Corp. for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-December, says that in an accident, debris could have choked off the flow of water to the plant's emergency coolant pumps and water sprays. That equipment - intended to keep the reactor's radioactive core from melting and to wash radioactive particles from the air inside the protective containment building - may not have worked properly or at all in certain conditions.

The company had previously acknowledged the potential sump failure only in theoretical terms.

"This is a very significant plant deficiency," said Hal Ornstein, a retired NRC senior safety analyst.

"The plant has essentially been operating from the get-go outside its design basis."

Ornstein said the report "contains the admission that Davis-Besse would most probably have melted" if there had been a loss-of-coolant accident.

A potentially disastrous combination existed at the Toledo-area plant, according to the company's assessment. Structures and equipment in the reactor building were coated with substandard paint and insulation that jets of steam from a coolant leak could blast loose.

The resulting debris could clog the screen of the sump in the containment building, preventing emergency pumps from returning enough spilled coolant to the hot reactor core.

The sump screen also had a 4.5-square-inch gap that could let larger rubbish pass through, potentially damaging pump blades or blocking the nozzles of water sprays that cool and scrub the superheated air.

The flaws did not come to the attention of Davis-Besse managers or the NRC until the intensive company and government inspections in the wake of the discovery last March of a pineapple-size rust hole all the way through the reactor's 6.5-inch steel lid, leaving only a thin liner.

To improve the sump, FirstEnergy is greatly enlarging its size, removing much of the old insulation and paint, and has promised to further pin down how likely it would have been for the equipment to become inoperable.

The NRC is also studying that issue. Both parties, as well as several people with experience in nuclear plants, say the findings are sobering.

"Things could have gotten real ugly," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who first called attention to the document.

The emergency equipment "would not have worked as it's designed to work," said Jim Powers, the engineering director of FirstEnergy's nuclear division. "There's a lot of unknowns and questions. There was a potential the sump could be blocked," although debris from a lid rupture would have to escape a gantry around the top of the reactor and follow a "torturous path" past obstacles to reach the sump's screened cover.

"It's not a situation you want to get into, and we didn't," said Powers, pointing out that the steel liner beneath the rust-ravaged lid did not give way.

The company's preliminary estimate is that the cracked and slightly bulging liner was about two years from rupture when workers stumbled upon the rust hole.

In the early minutes after a significant loss-of-coolant accident - what the industry calls a LOCA - hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water are pumped into the leaking reactor to replace the coolant spilling out. Davis-Besse has a 400,000-gallon storage tank, but its supply would be exhausted in about 25 minutes.

At that point, the reactor's operators must switch to the emergency sump to pump coolant from the floor of the containment building back into the hemorrhaging reactor. A wire-mesh strainer 14 feet long, 5 feet wide and 2 feet high covers the sump. If more than 50 percent of that strainer is blocked, the pumps will not get enough water flow to properly cool the core.

If the radioactive fuel rods in the core get too hot, they can melt, releasing steam and explosive hydrogen and threatening the integrity of the heavily shielded containment building. In America's worst nuclear accident to date, at Three-Mile Island, the core partially melted but only very small amounts of radiation escaped the containment building.

Although the NRC has studied the sump-clogging issue for at least a decade, the agency has not written regulations requiring plants like Davis-Besse with high-pressure reactors to change the design of their sumps. FirstEnergy has previously said it voluntarily decided to radically enlarge its sump area - by 3,000 percent - in order to be an industry leader, not because of design flaws.

The NRC "would need a staff the size of the Department of Homeland Security" to inspect every inch of every reactor, said Bill Dean, vice chairman of the panel overseeing Davis-Besse's repair. Instead, the agency must depend on reactor operators to catch and report issues it deems to be of lower significance.

FirstEnergy, formed by a merger in 1997, did not exist when Davis-Besse was built. "I don't know why this wasn't identified earlier on," FirstEnergy's Powers said, "but the nuclear industry's sensitivity has increased over the years" to the issue of sump clogging and improper paints and insulation.

Still, nuclear engineer and whistleblower Paul Blanch is amazed the Davis-Besse flaws weren't caught sooner. "It's incredible. Had the microscope not been focused on them [FirstEnergy], they would have gone on forever."

Since Davis-Besse must seek NRC permission to restart the plant, the agency will inspect to make sure the company's fixes are adequate, Dean said. A fine is not likely, since the agency must prove that rule violations were deliberate.

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

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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