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Davis-Besse saga spawns reforms

04/18/03

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

Washington - The embarassing, expensive and potentially dangerous rust hole in the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor lid is prompting widespread changes in the way regulators, politicians and the nuclear industry behave.

Speaker after speaker at the Nuclear Regulatory Conference's annual meeting on policy issues this week has made it clear that the pineapple-size cavity is causing a large-scale review aimed at preventing similar incidents.

Its notoriety and instructive power have spread overseas, too.

"What Davis-Besse shows is that utilities have to keep their eye on the ball and regulators have to have the proper programs in place," said Laurence Williams, chief inspector of nuclear installations in the United Kingdom.

"It's important to learn lessons to ensure such an event can't happen again."

In one such session yesterday, several hundred people representing all aspects of nuclear power listened to and questioned the panel members who talked about how the rust hole's discovery 14 months ago is changing the way the government inspects reactors, the way the industry confronts potential problems and the level at which local elected officials get involved in issues.

"Maybe we should have been asking more intrusive questions all along," said Ottawa County, Ohio, Administrator Jere Witt. "In the future, we will be."

And the NRC ought to stay involved with the local government after it permits the plant to resume making electricity, he said. The county wants to review the quarterly reports compiled by the agency's on-site inspectors and meet at least every six months with NRC officials.

How the NRC conducts inspections and what it does with the information it obtains is going to change, said Cynthia Carpenter, chief of the agency's inspection division.

"We need to direct our inspectors into areas of known . . . concern," Carpenter, "and provide them with training on current technical issues."

The agency has been struggling with the failure of its inspectors, both on-site and those from the Chicago regional office, to catch the small-but-years-long leak of reactor coolant at Davis-Besse that ate the hole in the reactor's lid.

Utilities had been instructed in the early 1990s to check for residues left behind by leaks and to thoroughly clean them up, but the NRC did not follow up. That will change, Carpenter said.

The Davis-Besse fiasco also revealed that the agency does not always correlate the information it does receive from the 103 operating reactors across the nation to spot trends or so-called "generic issues."

Because of Davis-Besse, the agency has a task force working on how to integrate information that its various divisions receive.

"We are not putting it all together," said Carpenter, "and we are looking at how to do that."

Another issue that the NRC has left unresolved for years - and has now reappeared in the months that Davis-Besse has been idle - is the apparent vulnerability of the emergency sumps at many nuclear plants. In the event of a major rupture of the reactor vessel's lid or its piping, those sumps could clog with debris, choking off water to the emergency pumps trying to keep the nuclear core from melting.

As part of Davis-Besse's extensive renovation, engineers there examined the sump and concluded that it could fail under certain conditions. They redesigned and greatly enlarged it, saying they wanted to make it a model for the whole industry.

And yesterday an NRC official said the agency would within weeks issue a bulletin to all utilities with reactors of the same design as Davis-Besse's. The bulletin will ask plant managers to "take a hard look" at whether they can be sure their emergency sumps will function properly in an accident, said Brian Sheron, the agency's associate director for project licensing.

This fall, Sheron said, the NRC will ask nuclear plants for a more detailed analysis of their emergency sumps and for proposals of how they could be modified to avoid the clogging problem.

The prospect of an imminent NRC bulletin and its information request seemed to catch the nuclear industry's lobbying and trade group by surprise. "What's the logic of that?" asked Alex Marion, the Nuclear Energy Institute's engineering director and a panel member with Sheron.

The NRC staff was concerned enough about the potential risk of clogging that it wanted to hear from utilities "relatively soon," Sheron explained.

For complete Davis-Besse coverage, go to www.cleveland.com/davisbesse/

To reach these reporters:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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