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Group seeking delay of Davis-Besse restart

06/26/03

John Mangels
Plain Dealer Science Writer

A watchdog group is asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to delay restarting Ohio's Davis-Besse reactor until the agency has wrapped up its investigation into potentially criminal wrongdoing by plant managers.

The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a letter yesterday to the NRC that without knowing the investigation's outcome, the agency and the public can't be certain FirstEnergy Corp. has corrected management problems at its troubled plant.

"Absent the completion of the [agency's] investigation, the NRC will be relying on FirstEnergy's own internal investigation into whatever housecleaning was necessary," said co-author David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Washington, D.C.-based group. "Relying solely on FirstEnergy is what got us into this situation to begin with."

The Toledo-area plant has been idle for 16 months after workers stumbled upon a pineapple-size rust hole that had completely penetrated the reactor's steel lid over the course of at least six years.

Only a thin, cracking stainless steel liner kept radioactive coolant from spilling out of the reactor vessel.

The NRC already has determined that FirstEnergy officials provided inaccurate and incomplete information about the lid's condition when they successfully lobbied the agency in late 2001 to postpone a reactor inspection.

For more than a year, the NRC's Office of Investigations has been reviewing whether those actions were deliberate, warranting fines, disciplinary action and/or possible criminal charges.

The NRC will not discuss the investigation's status, but as repairs at Davis-Besse grow closer to completion, those who are concerned about the plant have begun to worry that the inquiry will not be finished before the agency is faced with a restart decision.

Davis-Besse employees yesterday began an accelerated 12-hours-a-day, six-day workweek, and they sealed the big hatch that had been used to shuttle repair equipment in and out of the reactor building. The activities are in anticipation of a crucial weeklong test in mid-July to determine whether the huge reactor vessel, with its new lid, is leak-tight.

The NRC panel overseeing Davis-Besse's rehabilitation has been in "constant contact" with the investigators in the wrongdoing probe, agency spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said. While panel members may not have the final report when FirstEnergy seeks to restart the plant, they will know enough about the findings to make an informed recommendation, Mitlyng said.

She acknowledged that not publicly disclosing the investigation's findings when determining Davis-Besse's fitness for restart could affect public confidence in the NRC's decision. "We understand there is a trust issue," Mitlyng said.

"The panel will be very cautious and conservative in making evaluations in that area."

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland earlier this year had made a similar demand that the NRC delay its restart decision until the criminal probe was done.

Sam Collins, the NRC's director of licensing and inspection activities, responded that the agency's wrongdoing investigations look at past actions, while the restart decision considers the current performance of the plant's operators.

Lochbaum contends that past actions may influence the plant's current performance, which is why he argues that the investigation results should figure into the NRC's restart decision.

For example, he cites FirstEnergy's own recent assessment of its efforts to improve Davis-Besse's "safety culture." Plant workers surveyed this spring felt that senior managers who were in charge as the lid rusted out still haven't been held accountable.

"Staff point out that some of the managers directly involved in the event remain in the organization and have been reassigned to other sites and positions," the company's study found.

Lochbaum cited precedent where a utility let managers who were reassigned as punishment return to the plant after the NRC approved the reactor's restart.

FirstEnergy pledges that won't happen, said company spokesman Todd Schneider.

"We did a thorough investigation," Schneider said. "The people who were directly responsible for the problems at Davis-Besse are no longer in positions of authority. We took disciplinary action against 18 individuals and made substantial changes in the management of the plant. There's a new face in nearly every management position. The people in these new positions have demonstrated performance with us to make sure this type of thing won't be repeated."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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