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Posted on Fri, Jan. 31, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Nuclear regulators hear plans for plant
FirstEnergy making changes to improve safety at Davis-Besse

Beacon Journal business writer

Year-end bonuses closely tied to safety. A new way to pick the employee of the month.

Those two changes show how far FirstEnergy is striving to improve the safety culture among employees and management at the shut-down Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, utility executives told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday.

Other steps include hiring a high-profile safety consultant, instituting new training programs, holding regular meetings between top managers and employees, and creating safety review teams, FirstEnergy executives said in a meeting at the NRC's regional headquarters outside Chicago.

All of those actions are vitally important to the Akron utility.

Before Davis-Besse can be restarted, FirstEnergy has to prove to the NRC that the Oak Harbor plant's safety culture will prevent the kind of blunders that allowed boric acid leaks to eat cavities into the top of the reactor head. Plant employees wrote up 29 ``condition reports'' documenting boric acid on the reactor head, but managers didn't recognize the importance of the reports and didn't take action that could have warded off the damage, said Bob Saunders, head of FirstEnergy's nuclear operating company subsidiary.

Saunders is one of the executives whose bonuses will be more dependent on how well Davis-Besse's safety culture improves. Half of his bonus will now be tied to safety-related issues, with the other half tied to stock performance and shareholder value. The bonus formula varies among the other executives.

FirstEnergy has acknowledged that its focus on profit over safety led to the reactor damage. In addition, surveys of Davis-Besse employees last year showed many didn't trust plant management.

That's going to change, Saunders and other executives from the Akron utility said.

One way to help change employee attitudes will be naming the person who most improves safety at Davis-Besse as the employee of the month, said Lew Myers, chief operating officer for the nuclear operating company.

``That sends a message,'' Myers said.

FirstEnergy's newly hired safety consultant, Sonja Haber, said she is developing ways independently of plant management to measure the safety culture at Davis-Besse. She plans to issue a final report on her findings in March.

The utility's mismanagement, combined with lax NRC oversight, allowed boric acid to leak for years, leading to damage that may cost FirstEnergy more than $375 million to fix. FirstEnergy hopes to restart the reactor by April 1 -- it's been shut down since mid-February 2002.

``I want to underscore we are totally committed to nuclear safety,'' Saunders said.

Under Davis-Besse's old management team, the emphasis was on meeting minimum regulatory requirements rather than higher standards, said Myers. The company replaced many members of the plant's management team last year after the boric acid corrosion was found.

The company said it has a new color-coded system, with green being best and red worst, to measure safety culture. In order to be ready to restart, no areas must show red, Myers said. But he also said the company doesn't believe all of the measurements have to show green for Davis-Besse to be ready for restart.

The NRC does not have its own standards on how to evaluate safety culture, said Jack Grobe, an NRC official who heads a panel evaluating the plant.

``There is subjectivity involved in this,'' he said.

The regulators will evaluate the program FirstEnergy is developing and draw their own conclusion about the safety culture, said NRC Regional Administrator Jim Dyer.

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or
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