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Regional News | Article published Friday, August 1, 2003
COOLING-SYSTEM FLAW ADDRESSED, UTILITY SAYS
NRC flags Davis-Besse for another safety glitch
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By TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER


The faulty design of Davis-Besse’s emergency core cooling system - a problem with the containment sump that was overlooked since the nuclear plant opened in 1977 - was tentatively classified yesterday as a problem that had "substantial safety significance," government regulators said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a preliminary "yellow" finding largely on the belief that the system in place would have worked if the plant had had a small loss-of-coolant accident - not a more potentially devastating one caused by a medium or large break in the coolant system, Jan Strasma, a NRC spokesman, said.

The utility has 10 days to respond.

FirstEnergy does not plan to contest the NRC’s yellow finding. "We’re pleased to have that issue behind us," Richard Wilkins, a company spokesman, said.

The Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979 - the most notorious in U.S. nuclear history - is widely viewed as a small loss-of-coolant accident, according to David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a nationally known industry watchdog.

A yellow finding is one notch below the most serious issued by the NRC, its "red" finding for problems deemed to be of the highest safety magnitude. The NRC issued a red finding against FirstEnergy on Feb. 25 for letting Davis-Besse’s reactor head become so thinned by rust that it nearly burst and allowed radioactive steam into the plant’s containment building.

"The reason why a small break would have less impact is simply because the force of the steam and water would be less. It would be greater for the larger [loss-of-coolant] accidents, where there would be more potential to dislodge debris," Mr. Strasma said.

NRC and nuclear insiders have differing theories about whether a rupture in Davis-Besse’s reactor head would have led to a small, medium, or large loss of coolant water. The head was found March 6, 2002, in a perilously-thin condition: A lack of maintenance had allowed all but two-tenths of an inch of the six-inch-thick reactor head to be rusted away in one spot, where the liner had started to buckle and crack.

The longstanding problem with Davis-Besse’s containment sump and its associated pair of high-pressure injection pumps was diagnosed by FirstEnergy last fall, in part because the company has done a more thorough analysis of plant systems during the extended outage. The plant has been idle since Feb. 16, 2002.

The sump, which would be used to collect water off the containment floor in the event of a line break, was deemed faulty because of its propensity to get clogged by floating debris.

That has the potential of making the safety system inoperable. Once purified water in a holding tank is used up, pumps would have to switch over to sump water. The NRC’s concern was that the sump would not filter out all debris and that bits of material would pass through, breaking down the high-pressure injection pumps. If that were to happen, operators might not be able to keep re-circulating water over the hot reactor and prevent a meltdown, officials have said.

"For small loss-of-coolant accidents, the safety systems rely on the tank. You never really have to swap over and use the sump water," Mr. Lochbaum said. "The system that needed to work [in the event of a medium or large line break] was impaired."

The utility has responded to the sump problem by redesigning it and installing a strainer that should filter out debris. It has removed unqualified coatings in the containment area. Unqualified coatings were cited by the NRC as inadequate because of their potential to become debris in the event of an accident.

The yellow finding will not likely result in a fine because it does not appear to be a willful violation. It is a technical violation related to the plant’s design, Mr. Strasma said.

The NRC also cited an event in May that resulted in three inches of water flooding Davis-Besse’s turbine building because workers did not perform their jobs adequately.

The flooding started after workers tried to refill the plant’s circulating water system on May 15. One employee failed to follow an assigned procedure, allowing water to pass through valves that were supposed to be closed. Control-room operators were alerted by three alarms, but failed to respond, Mr. Strasma said.

The mess did not result in a safety threat. But the NRC is concerned because the agency has told FirstEnergy for months that it expects the company to be more diligent and instill a greater questioning attitude among its employees, he said.

FirstEnergy has enhanced training for the employees in question, on both the procedure and the need for identifying problems, Mr. Wilkins said.

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



More articles on this subject »
Ex-Davis-Besse worker contests firing 08/01/2003
Plants replacing reactor heads 07/31/2003
Davis-Besse outage costs almost $450M 07/25/2003
Test failure pushes back Davis-Besse restart effort 07/10/2003
NRC promotion provokes criticism 07/09/2003

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