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January 15, 2003


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Other | Article published Wednesday, January 15, 2003
NRC frets about plant attitudes
‘Safety culture’ must improve, officials say


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 plant.

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 management.

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. Myers explained.

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 reaction.

Plans for a late March restart will weigh heavily upon the results of that pressure test, Mr. Myers said.

He 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.

Had it 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 convinced.

"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 said.

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 has said.

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 General.

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 concerns.

The other report was a periodic survey that showed many NRC employees are still reluctant to come forward with their concerns nationwide.

Activists have said the NRC needs to improve its own safety culture, rather than just point fingers at FirstEnergy.

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."

A question-and-answer 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.

More articles on this subject »
Debate emerges over NRC official 01/11/2003
Outgoing chief of NRC decries critical report 01/10/2003
No fines likely in radiation exposure 01/08/2003
Taft asks NRC for full briefing before startup 01/07/2003
Investigators allege NRC put profit first 01/04/2003

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