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Davis-Besse safety review set to begin next week

04/01/03

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

In less than a week, the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant will confront the last and toughest test of its long penance - whether its managers are truly committed to running the reactor safely.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has designated a team of seven inspectors, including two highly regarded management turnaround specialists, to begin reviewing FirstEnergy Corp.'s efforts to revive Davis-Besse's dormant "safety culture." The inspectors will arrive at the Toledo-area plant Monday and remain well into May.

Though they praised the NRC decision to hire the outside specialists, critics say they have concerns about the inspection's scope and depth.

"This is the best news I've heard since Davis-Besse got itself into trouble," said Paul Blanch, a nuclear plant veteran who has worked with both of the NRC team's consultants.

But the team "is about six months too late in getting into this thing," Blanch said yesterday. Its assessment "is a snapshot of where Davis-Besse is now," he said. "What they don't have time to say is where the plant was six months or a year ago, and where they will be once the cops go away."

The consultants are John Beck and Mike Brothers. Both were heavily involved with the NRC's only major effort before Davis-Besse to reinstate safety culture at a nuclear plant. Safety culture is employees' commitment to preventing accidents.

At Davis-Besse, FirstEnergy has admitted putting production ahead of safety. The consequence was a long-undetected coolant leak that rusted a hole through the reactor's lid and nearly caused a serious nuclear accident. The plant has been closed nearly 14 months.

Beck's company, Little Harbor Consultants Inc., was brought in by the NRC to verify that management at Connecticut's Millstone nuclear plant properly overhauled safety culture there in the late 1990s. Brothers was a Millstone vice president during the turnaround and later became a consultant.

Neither could be reached for comment yesterday. The NRC is scheduled to announce their appointment this week.

"The fact that the NRC went and got those two guys suggests they are not just going to rubber-stamp the inspection," said David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "They both have knowledge of this subject and the reputation of not being steamrollered, of not being afraid to express opinions."

The rest of the team is composed of NRC staffers from its Midwest regional office and Rockville, Md., headquarters.

A FirstEnergy spokesman said the plant will cooperate with the safety culture work.

In the wake of Millstone and Davis-Besse, where management lapses rather than equipment failures have been at the heart of lengthy and highly publicized plant shutdowns, the NRC has become increasingly concerned about safety culture.

The agency's routine inspections at the nation's 103 reactors do not currently assess safety culture directly, and the nuclear industry has resisted any attempts, saying it would amount to meddling in management.

Even at Davis-Besse, the team is not itself independently evaluating the plant's safety culture. Instead, it will review efforts by FirstEnergy and the company's consultant over the last several months to gauge employee attitudes, address safety concerns and make improvements.

"Through our inspections we can get a pretty good sense of what [FirstEnergy] has done . . . to understand issues and develop corrective actions," said Bill Dean, vice chairman of the NRC panel overseeing Davis-Besse's overall rehabilitation. "You don't change a culture or organization overnight. It's going to have to be assessed periodically" to assure progress continues, "no matter whether restart is this summer, fall or whatever."

However many reviews of Davis-Besse's safety culture the NRC does, it will be unable to determine the risk the plant poses, said David Collins, an engineering analyst at Millstone who studies safety culture and advocates more extensive research.

Without a reliable way to compare safety culture at plants, the assessment of Davis-Besse "will be a big subjective call," said Collins.

"They'll not have anything to compare it against."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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