Article published Wednesday, January 15, 2003|
about plant attitudes
must improve, officials say
BLADE STAFF WRITER
PORT CLINTON - About 10 days before FirstEnergy
Corp. starts moving fuel back into its Davis-Besse nuclear reactor,
company officials have yet to convince the government that they have
improved the work environment enough to restart the troubled
Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said at their
monthly oversight panel meeting here yesterday that their lingering
concerns about FirstEnergy’s "safety culture" are among the biggest
obstacles the company has left to overcome.
A Jan. 30 meeting
has been scheduled at the agency’s Midwest regional office to
discuss that aspect of the review process, Jack Grobe, chairman of
the NRC’s oversight panel, said.
Bill Dean, the panel’s vice
chairman, said the NRC will expect FirstEnergy to prove it has
created an atmosphere that not only identifies problems at the plant
more readily but fosters cooperation between workers and
Lew Myers, chief operating officer of the
FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., the utility’s nuclear subsidiary,
agreed that such a shift in attitudes will be difficult to prove.
But he remained confident. "We think we’re making good progress
toward a restart," he said.
Mr. Myers told The Blade that
plant management hopes to finalize plans for the fuel-reload effort
on Friday and start moving fuel assemblies into the reactor on or
about Jan. 24.
When asked if 10 days was the approximate time
frame, he responded: "That’s accurate."
Reloading the reactor
is a major milestone in efforts to restart the plant by late March.
"We don’t want to keep moving it out and putting it back in," Mr.
Davis-Besse will undergo the biggest
pressure test in the plant’s 26-year history before the company
applies for a restart. Officials need to find out if the bottom of
the reactor is leaking. That test is planned for early March. It
will take a week, company officials said.
The reactor will be
operated at its normal 605-degree temperature and its full pressure
of 2,200 pounds per square inch. But control rods will be fully
inserted to keep nuclear fission from occurring. The control rods
contain boron, which absorbs neutrons essential for the nuclear
Plans for a late March restart will weigh heavily
upon the results of that pressure test, Mr. Myers said.
and other officials portrayed FirstEnergy - the nation’s
fourth-largest utility - as a company better prepared to head off
problems at Davis-Besse.
The company claimed it has brought
aboard an international expert, Dr. Sonja Habera, to help guide it
through its safety-culture issues. Dr. Habera, introduced to the NRC
panel, has previously worked on such matters with the NRC, the U.S.
Department of Energy, and the International Atomic Energy Agency in
Vienna, Mr. Myers said.
Jerry Lee, the nuclear subsidiary’s
leader of a reactor-coolant management program at Davis-Besse,
claimed the company has come up with a new formula for detecting
problems that will far surpass industry standards.
been developed a year ago, Davis-Besse operators could have seen as
many as 21 different sets of circumstances that might have tipped
them off to the need for a shutdown. "That’s the sensitivity of this
program," Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Myers called it "very unique"
because of the number of indicators it will generate to augment
existing safety efforts.
But the NRC panel wasn’t
"I don’t think there was a lack of awareness in
terms of boric acid leakage," Mr. Grobe said. "I appreciate this
effort. It provides an additional barrier. But, really,
[Davis-Besse’s unprecedented reactor-head corrosion] came down to
the safety culture - not programs per se," he
Davis-Besse, which went online in 1977, has been the
focus of national attention for almost a year because boric acid
from its reactor was leaking so badly that a hole nearly burned
through the plant’s reactor head. Had that happened, the 600-degree
water inside the reactor could have been instantly converted into
radioactive steam and northern Ohio would have been left hoping the
plant’s safety features were strong enough to hold it back, the NRC
The issue of safety culture is being addressed
within the ranks of the NRC itself, in the aftermath of two scathing
reports recently issued by the agency’s Office of Inspector
One claimed the agency put profits ahead of safety
by letting FirstEnergy talk it into a Feb. 16 shutdown last year,
rather than following through with an order that had been drafted to
have the plant shut down Dec. 31, 2001, because of safety
The other report was a periodic survey that showed
many NRC employees are still reluctant to come forward with their
Activists have said the NRC needs to
improve its own safety culture, rather than just point fingers at
Mr. Myers declined to comment about allegations
that others have made about his company’s regulator. But he told The
Blade last night that he accepts having FirstEnergy take its share
of the blame. Nuclear power is an industry where you "lay out your
dirty laundry like we did."
"It’s a terrible experience as a
manager, but it makes you stronger," he said. "This process we’re
going through is painful, but healthy."
session at the close of the meeting took several hours as 300 plant
employees, activists, residents, and local and nuclear officials
asked and fielded questions about the plant.
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