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NRC focusing on Davis-Besse operators


John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

Camp Perry- If the managers of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant thought the nearly completed - and so far successful - leak test of the reactor meant they will soon get permission to resume making electricity, they learned yesterday they were mistaken.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's special panel overseeing the efforts of plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. to renovate the Toledo-area reactor is just as interested in people issues as it has been in hardware.

"At this point in a plant's recovery effort, it is easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel from a hardware perspective," committee chairman Jack Grobe told company officials at the end of FirstEnergy's monthly public briefing. "It is harder on what I call the software" issues.

Grobe's comments came after plant officials listed a number of technical problems they believe workers will have fixed by early November.

But Grobe wanted to know what dates the company is targeting to finish a new system it uses to correct problems as they develop and to improve the performance of its reactor operators - who twice created problems for themselves during the leak test.

"We have a game plan on the corrective actions," said Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy's nuclear operating company. "From the operations standpoint, it would be unfair to say all the steps we will take," he added. "But we will nail it."

At the briefing, Vermilion resident Joseph Korff said remarks from Myers and other top managers did little to relieve his concern about the company's fitness to operate a nuclear plant.

In response, Grobe again stressed that the NRC, not FirstEnergy, will decide when Davis-Besse will resume making electricity.

"It doesn't matter, and has not mattered throughout this process, what dates FirstEnergy puts up," he said. "You can rest assured that this panel will not make a recommendation until we think the plant can operate safely."

Oversight panel member Christine Lipa noted that of the 31 items on the NRC's "restart checklist," 18 are still open.

Myers' staff reported on remaining equipment problems, on problems uncovered during the leak test and on how well the plant's operators and other staffers worked together during the 13 days they heated up the reactor to full operating pressure by non-nuclear means to test it for leaks.

The reactor and its cooling system showed a leak rate of just 0.006 gallons per minute, or 0.728 teaspoons, the best in its history, said Greg Dunn, manager of work control. "And those leaks were properly identified," he said.

The NRC allows plants to have unidentified leaks of up to one gallon per minute. The leak of boric acid-laced coolant that ate a hole in the reactor's old lid was less than that. Davis-Besse's reactor and cooling system contains nearly 90,000 gallons of coolant.

All told, workers checked about 1,342 connections and valves, Dunn said, and found 161 mostly minor problems. Of those, just 61 remain to be repaired or adjusted. Inspectors did not observe any leaks above the new lid nor any leaks in the reactor's bottom. A robotic camera was still inspecting the bottom yesterday.

Operations problems observed during the pressure test have disturbed both the NRC and Davis-Besse's managers. Operators were not well briefed, the written procedures were not well written, and operator performance was not up to industry standards, reported Mike Roder, manager of plant operations.

"I am deeply disappointed in operator performance," he said, "but confident the steps we have taken will straighten it out."

Among those steps: hiring a new training manager, interviewing all operators to assess their strengths and weaknesses and reassigning operators to new crews. Staff is also conducting a "root cause" inquiry into how operators failed, he said.

One of the "human performance" tests Davis-Besse conducted during the pressurizing was to have observers watch workers for signs they had learned how to solve problems and work without fear of reprisals from bosses. Those observers were themselves the focus of a team of outside industry executives who tried to assess how objective they were, said Rick Dame, supervisor of reliability.

The outside team noted that the in-house observers were not as critical as they should be and that newly hired managers were more self-critical - a trait appreciated by the NRC - than long-time employees. They also noted that during the course of the test, these new managers began coaching the older staff to take on the same traits.

Those were the preliminary findings. Dame said he is preparing a comprehensive report.

During the nearly six hours of hearing yesterday, NRC Deputy Executive Director Samuel Collins sat in the audience, taking notes. "I am just gathering information," Collins said afterward. "Nothing I heard today surprises me. No date was announced for restart. And we are not here to push them."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4138

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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