| Article published Thursday, February 27, 2003|
Loading of fuel complete at Besse
New reactor head next step for
By TOM HENRY
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
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
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]
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
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
Other work before restart includes upgrades to a pair
of reactor coolant pumps, the containment air climate-control
system, and the emergency containment sump.
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