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April 17, 2003

 



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Other | Article published Thursday, April 17, 2003
NUCLEAR POWER
Davis-Besse ‘failure’ cited at global forum

By
BLADE STAFF WRITER


WASHINGTON - The official who President Bush put in charge of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said yesterday that Davis-Besse’s extensively damaged reactor head was caused by an "enormous failure" in judgment by FirstEnergy Corp. and the NRC.

Speaking to his largest audience since taking over the agency on April 1, NRC Chairman Nils J. Diaz told 1,200 people from 15 countries here that oversight breakdowns, such as the one documented at Davis-Besse, cannot ever be tolerated again.

Although the unprecedented corrosion and other identified problems did not result in a nuclear accident, they exposed weaknesses in the NRC’s ability to regulate the industry, Dr. Diaz said.

"It was an enormous failure on the part of the licensee and the NRC. I want to say that loud and clear. It was an enormous failure," he said.

Dr. Diaz made his comments during a 90-minute presentation that began the NRC’s 15th annual Regulatory Information Conference.

The three-day event, at the Capital Hilton, has brought together representatives of government, industry, and advocacy groups to discuss issues ranging from homeland security to radioactive waste disposal.

Davis-Besse’s problems are clearly among those under the national spotlight. The plant was brought up repeatedly in sessions yesterday, including one about the safety culture in nuclear workforces. It also was discussed in one about metal fatigue and aging equipment. This morning, Davis-Besse will be the focus of a separate 90-minute panel.

Halfway through his presentation, Dr. Diaz left little doubt that the Davis-Besse saga has risen to national prominence as the aging nuclear industry strives to become a bigger part of America’s growing energy picture.

"If there is anyone here who doesn’t know about the hole in the pressure vessel at Davis-Besse, they probably wandered into the wrong hall by mistake," Dr. Diaz said as he shifted the focus of his speech to the plant.

Although bothered by the oversight lapse, the new NRC chairman said he believes Davis-Besse’s severely dilapidated condition "was not an impending disaster."

Dr. Diaz said he is confident FirstEnergy would have noticed a significant drop in pressure if a major rupture had occurred while the plant was operating.

The company, in turn, should have been able to shut down the plant before the steel containment structure got filled with radioactive steam. That would have resulted in a costly mess, but perhaps not an imminent threat to the public, Dr. Diaz said. But, he added: "I definitely do not want to have the need to depend upon the containment."

Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy’s nuclear subsidiary who is attending the conference, told The Blade he agreed with Dr. Diaz’ assessment.

"If we had done a better job with inspections, we wouldn’t be sitting here today," Mr. Myers said. "I find it difficult to imagine we did not find this earlier."

Davis-Besse has not operated since it was shut down for refueling on Feb. 16, 2002.

A six-inch cavity was found in the reactor head three weeks later, the result of acid in coolant water that had presumably leaked out of the reactor and burned its way through carbon steel. The only thing holding back the reactor’s intense pressure was a stainless steel liner two-tenths of an inch thick. It had started to buckle and crack, and was not engineered to be used for anything other than corrosion control, NRC officials have said.

NRC officials have for months described the situation as the nation’s worst rust problem of its kind, a maintenance letdown that put northwest Ohio on the brink of an accident akin to the one at Three Mile Island.

In a brief interview with The Blade, Dr. Diaz said he is in full agreement with how his predecessor, Dr. Richard Meserve, responded to a controversial report about Davis-Besse that came out in January.

In that report, the NRC’s own inspector general, Hubert T. Bell, accused the agency of letting FirstEnergy get away with putting profits ahead of safety. Dr. Meserve accused the inspector general of issuing a biased, misleading, and unfair report.

A high-profile watchdog, Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, said Dr. Diaz must recognize the NRC had a role in helping the company put profits ahead of safety - or else it is business as usual at the agency. "This agency turned a blind eye on inspections and maintenance at Davis-Besse," Mr. Gunter said.

The 26-year-old plant is one of many in which companies are scrambling to replace aging equipment before it breaks down, he said.

One NRC researcher, Michael Mayfield, said the agency is trying to get better at anticipating problems before they occur.

Mr. Gunter said the public needs a more proactive NRC. Otherwise, safety seems more reliant on "a roll of the dice than effective regulation," he said.

Dr. Diaz said he does not want business as usual at the NRC while he’s chairman.

He said he wants the agency to keep in mind real-life performances of utilities as it adopts new regulations, instead of just relying on perceived safety risks.

Davis-Besse’s performance is "a small part" of his decision to think that way because the oversight letdown allowed the safety margin to be unnecessarily decreased, he said.

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse.




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