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Regional News | Article published Thursday, February 27, 2003
Loading of fuel complete at Besse
New reactor head next step for plant

By
BLADE STAFF WRITER


OAK HARBOR, Ohio - FirstEnergy Corp. said it achieved a "major milestone" in its yearlong effort to restart its beleaguered Davis-Besse nuclear plant when it finished reloading the plant’s reactor with nuclear fuel yesterday.

The last of 177 fuel assemblies were placed in the reactor at 3:30 a.m., ending a weeklong task that began Feb. 19.

It was an uplifting moment for the company, symbolizing forward progress after being battered by accusations for months that it has shielded vital information from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the degraded condition of the plant’s old reactor head and other components before the shutdown that began Feb. 16, 2002.

But FirstEnergy readily admits it has other hurdles to overcome before it can get the NRC’s green light to resume operation, such as:

w Getting the agency to sign off on routine equipment inspections. That could keep the plant idle until summer. Agency officials said this week they have inspections scheduled through early May, but a number of factors - including results from upcoming pressure tests on the containment shell and the bottom of the reactor - could push back the timetable.

w Demonstrating a turnaround in work atmosphere. That could be even more difficult to prove, the NRC has said. The issue could have become more clouded last week by a federal whistleblower complaint. NRC officials learned about a fired engineer who claimed his dismissal resulted in a "chilling effect" on the plant work force because he tried to raise safety concerns.

FirstEnergy expects to shed new light on the issue of work atmosphere with a survey being done by a revered industrial psychologist. Preliminary results are expected in mid-March, Richard Wilkins, a company spokesman, said.

John Zwolinski, NRC director of licensing and project management, told the agency’s inspector general last fall he has questioned FirstEnergy’s word on a number of issues. "How can [the NRC] have faith, trust, and confidence we’ve gotten the right anything from that facility?" he told investigators, according to an interview transcript. "I mean, this kind of thing shakes me. ... You simply can’t work that way with a regulator."

On Tuesday, another senior NRC official, Brian Sheron, associate director for project licensing and technical assessment, said an improved work atmosphere is mandatory. The NRC wants proof, not promises, that FirstEnergy management will be more receptive to addressing safety concerns, he said. "The NRC will not authorize restart until the NRC is convinced [FirstEnergy] is ready," he said. "We’re not tying our assessment to the [utility’s] restart date."

FirstEnergy’s next milestone will be to install the reactor head that it obtained and refurbished from a mothballed nuclear plant in Midland, Mich. Plans call for that to be done within a week, Mr. Wilkins said.

That reactor head is replacing the 25-year-old original, which had a football-sized rust gap in it. Leaking boric acid from Davis-Besse’s reactor burned all but a thin liner, nearly causing a rupture that could have led to an accident of Three Mile Island-proportion, officials have said.

The steel containment shell that encapsulates the reactor is to undergo a pressure test in early March. Plans for a nonnuclear power-up of the reactor - previously scheduled for the first part of March - have been pushed back to the end of that month or the first of April, Mr. Wilkins said.

The latter test will take a week. It will focus on whether the bottom of the reactor leaks.

Other work before restart includes upgrades to a pair of reactor coolant pumps, the containment air climate-control system, and the emergency containment sump.



More articles on this subject »
Bump shutters Pittsburgh-area plant 02/27/2003
NRC rates corrosion 1 of worst violations 02/26/2003
Repairs key to engineer’s case 02/26/2003
NRC holds to inspection of all Besse-type reactor heads 02/25/2003
NRC looking at complaint about Besse 02/21/2003

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