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NRC tells Davis-Besse to prove safety culture

09/11/03

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

Oak Harbor - As FirstEnergy Corp. prepares to test the mettle of the equipment, managers and staff at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, federal regulators want the plant to prove it has dramatically changed its work culture to assure the public and government that it can operate safely into the future.

Jack Grobe, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's special panel overseeing the plant, said yesterday the panel has set an Oct. 1 deadline for the company to report on the progress it has made at re-establishing a "safety culture" at Davis-Besse.

The company itself months ago admitted that Davis-Besse's former managers had put production over safety and that its internal employee surveys revealed workers had little confidence in management. The NRC determined it was the underlying weak safety culture that allowed workers and managers to ignore the coolant leak that over years corroded a hole in the reactor lid that has kept the Toledo-area plant shut for 19 months.

"The problem wasn't caused by the hardware," said Grobe. "It was caused by the organization." He said the key question is whether Davis-Besse has created the organizational effectiveness to ensure this kind of a problem will not recur.

"On Oct. 1, we are going to be talking about organizational issues, not only what has occurred to date, what they have accomplished, but also they will be expected to share with us what their long-term continuing improvement strategy will be" - a process that could take several years.

While the company hopes to be ready to ask for NRC permission to restart this fall, Grobe said the NRC was in no rush: It has yet to assemble its "restart team." Another key to getting restart approval will be proof that the reactor's pressurized coolant system is not leaking.

Davis-Besse's managers said that yesterday they turned on the reactor's four huge 9,000-horsepower coolant recirculation pumps. The friction from pumping should heat up the coolant to nearly operational temperatures and pressures by tomorrow. No nuclear fission is involved.

The NCR will have teams of inspectors in the plant during the seven-day pressure test, Grobe said, to see how the equipment performs and to watch how Davis-Besse's employees handle the thousands of mandatory equipment inspections to make sure there are no leaks.

The plan to test Davis-Besse's operational readiness includes a team from FirstEnergy's other nuclear plants and a team of outside industry executives who will be in the plant during the heat-up to observe employees, said Rick Dame, supervisor of the reliability team.

One criteria the teams will use will be whether Davis-Besse's managers challenge one another's assessments in a creative, give-and-take atmosphere free from recrimination. "We will look at how much healthy challenging is done," Dame said.

"And we are bringing in talented senior nuclear executives who have turned around other nuclear plants," he said of the team of outside experts. "We will look to that team to provide recommendations about what we ought to be doing to improve performance."

And if there are no "emergent" problems such as unexpected leaks or breaks, Dame's people have a number of drills they plan to spring on the workforce to make sure it can handle unforeseen problems.

All of this will be closely observed and recorded by Davis-Besse's own quality assurance department, headed by the same manager who wrote the initial report sharply criticizing the laxity of former managers.

The department is interested not just in how the equipment performs but also whether workers and managers alike stick with the new procedures the company is trying to inject into the work environment, said Steve Loehlein, director of Quality Assurance for FirstEnergy.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138.


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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