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Besse operators face NRC rebuke

08/01/03

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said yesterday it is preparing to cite the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant's operators with the agency's second-most severe finding for failing for decades to correct conditions in the reactor building that could have caused emergency safety systems to fail during an accident.

The issue has been on the bubble for months - that paint chips and fibrous insulation could have plugged the plant's emergency sump after a coolant-loss accident, starving emergency pumps designed to put water back into the reactor and keep the nuclear core from melting.

The NRC report notes that Davis-Besse managers knew as early as 1976 - a year before the plant opened - that the paint used to coat the reactor building's interior walls and much of its equipment might not be able to stand up to a geyser of steam if a major pipe were to break or the reactor itself leak. Yet they did nothing.

The agency itself issued a letter to Davis-Besse and operators of similar reactors in 1998 warning that the paint could peel off and clog the sump screens. Davis-Besse initiated several efforts to fix the problem but apparently never followed through.

Plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. has 10 days to object to the citation - that it operated Davis-Besse for 26 years with a substantial risk that its radioactive core could have been seriously damaged in an accident.

A FirstEnergy spokesman said last night that the company would not object to the findings - and that in any case it had already fixed the problems by rebuilding the sump screens at a cost of nearly $4 million and removing old paint and insulation from equipment and from the interior walls of the reactor building.

The agency uses a four-color system to express the safety significance of its citations, with green being the least-significant violation and red the most serious. In this case, the NRC believes the violation deserves a yellow finding - one step below red - because the safety of the plant was compromised.

Consequences of such a ruling are normally stepped-up NRC oversight at a plant, but since the agency already has numerous teams of inspectors there, there are no immediate consequences, said Jack Grobe, head of the special agency panel overseeing the company's efforts to fix the troubled facility.

Davis-Besse has been shut down since February 2002 for an expected $258 million in repairs by year's end resulting from NRC-mandated inspection that turned up a large corrosion hole in the reactor's heavy carbon steel lid. Only a thin stainless steel liner was keeping the super-heated radioactive coolant from bursting through the lid. The reactor operates at pressures of more than one ton per square inch.

The yellow finding is further evidence that the company cannot be trusted to restart and safely operate the power plant, said Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a reactor watchdog group.

The agency's decision to assign a yellow - rather than a red - finding to the sump screen deficiency is also questionable, said David Lochbaum, nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

NRC engineers calculating the chances that an accident clogging the sump screens could increase the danger of a meltdown occurring used generic industry probability factors rather than numbers that would have taken into account the unprecedented corrosion in Davis-Besse's reactor lid.

"The hole in Davis-Besse's reactor head made it more likely that the plant would have had a . . . loss-of-coolant accident," said Lochbaum, saying the generic industry numbers were too lenient.

Grobe confirmed that the calculations were done using industry-standard probability numbers because FirstEnergy decided not to do the complicated analysis - though it had twice promised it - of how much paint and insulation would have been blown off equipment and walls had the corrosion hole burst.

Asked why he did not simply demand the analysis, Grobe said he believed that the expensive and time-consuming analysis would have diverted resources and manpower that the company ought to be using to fix the plant.

The NRC also listed a number of management and worker problems that either the company or the agency's teams of inspectors spotted in recent weeks while observing restoration of the Toledo-area plant.

Those included improperly tightening bolts on machinery, leading to damage when it was tested and leaving open valves during a procedure to put new coolant into the reactor, flooding the plant's turbine building with three inches of water.

The agency said the foul-ups were not of high safety significance and therefore would be classified as "green." But they have not gone unnoticed, said Grobe, as the company pushes toward asking permission for restart. "Their performance is not at a level that would meet NRC requirements," he said, "and we will continue to monitor.

"Am I confident (FirstEnergy can operate the plant safely)? I am only confident in what I observe. As of now, I have observed that they haven't yet demonstrated sustained improvement in this area."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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