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NRC hopes reforms plug holes in safety


Stephen Koff, John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

Washington- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday said it has already begun implementing extensive reforms to make certain it won't again be caught unaware of big problems like those at the Davis-Besse power plant in northern Ohio.

The plant developed an unprecedented hole in its lid while receiving good reviews from the NRC. The hole was discovered last March.

"Assuring the public health and safety is the fundamental goal of the NRC, and the commission is prepared to learn from this experience to assure that we achieve that goal," NRC Chairman Richard Meserve said at the start of a public meeting where the 49 reforms were publicly unveiled.

The five commissioners and their senior staff acknowledged inspection failures and other shortcomings that caused the agency to miss signs that a potential disaster was brewing, including clogged, discolored filters and corrosion deposits on the reactor vessel lid.

As was first disclosed in The Plain Dealer yesterday, they are implementing policy, inspection, staff and training reforms in response to an internal Lessons Learned Task Force report that focused on inadequacies and oversights in the months and years before the Davis-Besse hole was discovered.

William Travers, NRC executive director for operations, issued a memo on Jan. 3 ordering the agency to develop an "action plan" by Feb. 28 to implement reforms that include instilling a more questioning attitude.

"Our goal going forward . . ." said Travers, "is to improve our program, and not just in the area of boric acid corrosion but much more broadly than that. And I'm here to tell you that the staff is dedicated to that sort of improvement."

William Kane, deputy executive director for reactor programs, said he has already visited two of the NRC's four regional offices and will visit a third next week to encourage the regional staffs to embrace the reforms and acknowledge "our disappointment with what took place."

The staff will provide six-month updates to the commissioners on progress made in implementing reforms. David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog organization, said the reports "will help ensure that all these good intentions lead to real improvements, so that's what we're going to be monitoring."

NRC commissioners were generally favorable in their comments at yesterday's meeting, but Commissioner Greta Dicus asked, "Are we really learning the lessons learned, given that some of these problems keep resurfacing? . . . Do we have some other smoking guns out there that we are not paying the kind of attention to that we should?"

Travers told her that "we do have to apply these lessons much more broadly than boric acid corrosion."

Commissioner Nils Diaz asked if the staff could assure the public that there are no more reactors with holes in their lids.

Travers said, "We have reasonable assurance, and I think that's the best I can give you, that, given the inspections that have been done - and we think that they have been fairly thorough - that there are no more further issues similar to Davis-Besse."

Meanwhile, at a separate meeting at Camp Perry, Ohio, near the reactor, plant managers said their engineers were still evaluating more than 1,600 reports of problems or conditions that they believed were significant enough that they would have to be resolved before restarting the reactor. That number was down from a peak of nearly 2,500 in November.

Often, resolving a report can generate several jobs. Crews this week were still facing 2,157 repairs or engineering tasks, down from nearly 2,300 last month, that must be completed before the restart.

The company unveiled a new plant program yesterday that it believes will vastly increase awareness of, and attention to, leaks in the reactor's coolant system. Leaks led to the pineapple-size rust hole in Davis-Besse's reactor lid.

The new program demands that reactor operators take action when coolant leakage exceeds low levels or goes on for very long. Such actions include temporarily shutting down the reactor if necessary to track down the source. Had the system been in place between 1998 and last year, the operators would have had 21 shutdowns, based on plant leak rate records, the company said, including 11 times in the last two years.

"This program . . . has trigger points where it forces you to make management decisions," said Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy's nuclear division. "We did not have that before. That is the fundamental difference in safety culture."

In addition to the equipment fixes, Davis-Besse must also convince the NRC that it has fixed its broken safety culture, the attitude that compels every employee to put safety before profits or anything else. The company has hired a nationally known safety-culture consultant who has worked with other nuclear plants and the NRC itself. FirstEnergy will give more details about its safety-culture work at a special NRC meeting Jan. 30 in Chicago.

FirstEnergy officials say they plan to bring the reactor up to operating temperature and pressure for a week, probably in March if the NRC approves, in order to check for possible leaks in the bottom of the reactor's steel vessel, where rust earlier had been found. The outcome of that test will help determine when the plant can resume generating electricity.

The steady drumbeat of community support for Davis-Besse that began at last month's meeting continued last night, with elected officials and some residents reminding NRC officials of the plant's economic importance to Ottawa County and urging them to approve its restart.

Area resident Donna Leuke urged her fellow audience members, however, to not only question how they can save jobs at Davis-Besse, but also to ask themselves what they can do to hold FirstEnergy accountable for jeopardizing the safety of the public and the environment.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:, 216-999-4212, 216-999-4842, 216-999-4138

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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