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Tuesday,
February 25, 2003

 



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Regional News | Article published Tuesday, February 25, 2003
NRC holds to inspection of all Besse-type reactor heads

By
BLADE SCIENCE EDITOR


ROCKVILLE, Md. - A top U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official expressed concern yesterday that the rust problem that nearly ate through the reactor head at Davis-Besse still may be a threat at other nuclear power plants.

Brian Sheron, an associate director of the agency, raised the topic at the end of a meeting called to inform nuclear power plant operators about a strict new inspection regimen ordered in Davis-Besse’s wake.

During the session, the NRC rejected an industry effort to redefine "100 percent" in a key clause in the order, issued Feb. 11 to owners of nuclear power stations with reactors similar to Davis-Besse’s.

It requires a visual inspection of 100 percent of the bare metal on the reactor pressure vessel head.

That is the top of the thick steel container that holds tons of radioactive material under high pressure.

FirstEnergy, which owns the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, found a football-sized hole in the steel container in March, the result of a leak of corrosive acid that went uncorrected for years. NRC described the episode as the most serious safety lapse in recent history.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group in Washington, quickly objected to the 100-percent inspection requirement. Alexander Marion, the group’s director of engineering, argued that workers at many nuclear plants are unable to see 100 percent of the reactor vessel head surface because of obstructions.

Complete inspections would be unnecessarily costly, with owners required to remove and replace insulation and other components during plant shutdowns, Mr. Marion suggested.

Mr. Marion asked NRC to define "100 percent" in the new order according to an obscure clause in the agency’s existing regulations.

It would let owners get by with inspecting "essentially 100 percent" of the reactor vessel head, which the regulations define as at least 91 percent.

"With the order, 100 percent does mean 100 percent," NRC’s Alan Hiser told Mr. Marion. "There’s nothing intended there to allow lesser inspections."

"Unreasonable and burdensome," Mr. Marion later grumbled, referring to certain requirements in the order.

NRC staff, however, said nuclear power plant owners could apply for "relief" from provisions that were unusually difficult to comply with.

Mr. Sheron said waiver requests would be considered on an individual basis. Some, he said, would require approval from the top official in NRC reactor regulation division.

The new order also requires plant operators to do additional inspections for leaks in plumbing connections located above the reactor pressure vessel. Water flowing through the pipes contains boric acid, the corrosive material that ate into the Davis-Besse pressure vessel.

Mr. Sheron said boric acid leaks at other nuclear power plants continue to bewilder and concern NRC officials.

Most plants, he said, have some "unidentified leakage" of the solution of water and boric acid used to cool the nuclear reactor. It’s categorized as "unidentified leakage" because nobody is certain exactly which pipe fittings or other components are leaking.

Ideally, the leakage amounts to less than one gallon per minute. But some plants lose 10 gallons a minute, amounting to huge quantities of boric acid each year, he explained.

"The question we scratch our heads about is where that boric acid is going," Mr. Sheron said.

At Davis-Besse, it accumulated in a difficult-to-see spot on the reactor pressure vessel, quietly damaging the vessel.

Mr. Sheron said the NRC is in the early stages of considering measures that would require utilities to identify the leaks and account for each pound of lost boric acid for added safety assurance.



More articles on this subject »
NRC looking at complaint about Besse 02/21/2003
NRC exec took word of Besse’s owners 02/20/2003
Engineer says utility ignored rust 02/19/2003
Regulator flip-flopped on Davis-Besse shutdown 02/15/2003
FirstEnergy’s loss in quarter cuts ’02 profit 02/14/2003

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