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January 31, 2003


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Other | Article published Friday, January 31, 2003
Psychologist to evaluate work force
FirstEnergy outlines efforts to boost safety


LISLE, Ill. - Davis-Besse’s future could be tied in part to the impression FirstEnergy Corp. employees make on a revered industrial psychologist.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said here yesterday they are intrigued by the method Dr. Sonja Haber plans to use for evaluating Davis-Besse’s work atmosphere.

They hedged their enthusiasm just short of calling it the cornerstone of perhaps the biggest hurdle left for FirstEnergy to overcome - convincing the government Davis-Besse workers will be taken seriously when they have the courage to report problems.

"As for the level and depth of questions we’ve asked about her methodology, I don’t want that to be interpreted as over-emphasis," Jack Grobe, NRC oversight panel chairman, said. "It’s just something we haven’t seen before."

In a presentation that lasted nearly six hours, FirstEnergy outlined efforts it has made to enhance Davis-Besse’s safety culture since the plant was idled nearly a year ago by the nation’s worst reactor-head corrosion. Rust was so advanced the lid could have ruptured and allowed tons of radioactive steam to form inside the containment building.

The NRC has said the problem could have been avoided if the plant had a more effective method of addressing safety concerns.

FirstEnergy officials showed ways they’ve tried to revamp conditions inside the plant, from reorganizing the management team to improving a program in which workers can maintain anonymity when coming forward.

The company submitted in writing a list of recently enacted bonus incentives for senior management officials who meet safety-driven goals - not primarily those related to production, where the company admits it erred by placing too much emphasis throughout the 1990s.

Lew Myers, First Nuclear Operating Co. chief operating officer, revealed a color-coded system that will be used to track across-the-board safety programs.

But the backbone of the company’s presentation was Dr. Haber, a safety-culture specialist the utility hired as an outside consultant for Davis-Besse.

Her credentials include work in five countries, including assessments for the NRC, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and the Spanish Ministry of Industry.

She said she has used peer-reviewed methodology at a cross-section of chemical, nuclear, mining, fossil fuel, health care, and research facilities, including Soviet-designed reactors, and she has accumulated a database of responses from more than 20,000 workers over two decades.

At Davis-Besse, Dr. Haber plans to not only cull thousands of pages of documents but also do hour-long interviews with at least 10 percent of the plant’s 725 member work force. Information also will be gathered from on-site focus groups. One of the key elements of her research, she said, will be a plant-wide survey that begins next week. Each employee will be asked 190 questions.

The accumulation of data will be used to issue what FirstEnergy officials hope will be a pivotal report to bolster their claims about an improving work environment.

NRC officials said the report, due in late March, will be a key piece of evidence either way because the agency wants insight about plant attitudes documented before it decides whether to grant a restart.

Dr. Haber told them not to expect an overnight change of attitudes. "Three to five years is usually the timeframe to reasonably expect a change in attitudes and work habits," she said.

The only other plant to undergo such heightened level of safety-culture scrutiny was the three-unit Millstone nuclear complex in Connecticut.

The NRC said it took action there after evidence surfaced in 1996 that the company operating it, Northeast Utilities, had been harassing and intimidating employees who tried to speak up.

"It’s not often the NRC moves into this safety-culture area," Mr. Grobe said. "There are no NRC standards on how to do this."

Jim Dyer, the NRC’s Midwest regional administrator, agreed the meeting was productive and that the information presented will be a framework for improving worker morale.

He said he wanted the utility to demonstrate how it intended to keep the safety focus from backsliding once the oversight panel disbanded.

"What’s important," Mr. Grobe told FirstEnergy officials, "is you have a set of indicators that seem suitable. And we are headed in the right direction in that regard."

Skeptics remain.

They include Paul Blanch, a 25-year veteran of Millstone who was fired from his engineering job after raising safety issues at that complex.

Mr. Blanch, later rehired as an ombudsman as part of Millstone’s restart plan, yesterday told the NRC he has deep reservations about Davis-Besse because of the apparent reluctance among workers to come forward - a sign of an ingrained problem.

"I think you have symptoms of a safety-conscious work environment that are worse than they ever were at Millstone," he said, noting how some workers there put their jobs on the line to come forward.

FirstEnergy now hopes to begin the three-week process of refueling Davis-Besse’s reactor shortly before Feb. 11, the date of the NRC oversight panel’s next monthly meeting at Camp Perry, Mr. Myers said.

That massive undertaking is viewed as a big step toward an eventual restart, now eyed for early April by the company.

NRC officials said they will not be held to any such timetable and will continue with their inspections, which now exceed 5,000 hours since the shutdown began Feb. 16, 2002.

Before any restart proposal is submitted, FirstEnergy plans a one-week pressure test, with the fuel loaded, to see if the bottom of the reactor is leaking, officials said.

More articles on this subject »
Besse put on notice to show job safety 01/30/2003
Whos’ minding nuclear store? 01/26/2003
2 more nuke plants show coolant leaks 01/22/2003
Moyers TV special on Davis-Besse 01/22/2003
NRC admits lengthy timetable for implementing safety reforms 01/15/2003

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