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Davis-Besse costs still rising

03/12/03

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

Oak Harbor - FirstEnergy Corp. said yesterday the severe weather has pushed up power replacement costs for its damaged Davis-Besse nuclear plant to $40 million for January and February, compared to the $20 million to $30 million forecast.

The increase raises to $338 million the amount the company has spent on repairs and replacement power - plus $50 million budgeted for repairs this year - since the plant was shut Feb. 16, 2002, for refueling and an NRC-mandated inspection.

During a safety check of its lid last March, workers found a gaping rust hole.

Last night, workers repairing the Toledo-area plant reached a milestone when they began bolting down a new 150-ton lid onto the reactor.

The job, which began as federal authorities held their monthly meeting with Davis-Besse managers at nearby Camp Perry, will take several days to complete. Each of the 60 bolts must be tightened to exact specifications.

Still to come are two crucial tests - checking the reactor for leaks in instrument tubes that pass through its bottom and checking the reactor's containment building for air-tightness.

Workers also must finish modifications to the emergency sump pump debris screens.

On top of that, thousands of smaller jobs remain to be done before the plant can be restarted.

"Restart is not imminent," said Jack Grobe, chairman of the special Nuclear Regulatory Committee overseeing repairs and management changes being made by plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron.

"They continue to make good progress," he said. "They have three challenges - design issues, safety culture and bulk work."

Grobe could not predict when the NRC's army of inspectors would finish their jobs. The company maintains the plant will be ready to restart sometime in April.

Among "bulk work" Grobe referred to are some 2,400 jobs, most minor, that must be done, documented and inspected. The NRC will have 19 inspectors at the plant next week, he said.

"There is a lot of hard work ahead of us," said Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy's nuclear operating company. "But we are making a lot of progress improving material [hardware] conditions."

The NRC has demanded the company demonstrate that Davis-Besse's "safety culture" - its overriding commitment to safety - is paramount before it will allow the plant to make electricity again.

Two months ago, the company hired industrial psychologist Sonja Haber of New York City to review its "safety culture" and develop a program the company can use to monitor and maintain it.

Haber and her associates interviewed 90 FirstEnergy employees, including senior managers, corporate executives, Davis-Besse managers and workers throughout the plant, said William Pearce, vice president of oversight for FirstEnergy's nuclear operating company.

Another team attended routine plant meetings to see how day-to-day decisions were made, he said. Finally, Haber gave a written survey to 661 of Davis-Besse's 830 employees.

Haber will deliver her initial report to the company and NRC officials next week. Concerned that the final report will be cleansed of controversy, Grobe said the draft report ought to be attached to the final analysis.

"It's important that Haber's work be completely independent," Grobe said. "Credibility is critical."

Pearce said he did not know if the draft report will be made public.

Grobe said Haber's report will not be the last word on the issue. The report will not be a "go, no-go, not a light switch," he said.

The NRC will make its own assessment of Davis-Besse's safety culture after sending a team of up to four inspectors, including two outside experts, to the plant, he said.

Design issues on Grobe's agenda stem in part from Davis-Besse's engineers giving the go-ahead on equipment modifications before they have completed final blueprints. The practice is called "at-risk design" because there is a risk the job will have to be reworked when things don't go together correctly. It has resulted in some problems.

For example, plumbers, electricians and other craftsmen ran into trouble installing newly rebuilt air conditioners in the reactor's containment building. The three coolers, each containing 12 radiators, are crucial to keeping the building temperature down after an accident. Workers pointed out engineering designs would make it difficult to inspect the coolers. Modifications are being made.

"In a typical outage, you order parts and prepare for it months before," said Myers. But because Davis-Besse is getting so many improvements as problems are discovered, the company has had to engineer on the fly. "It's . . . not the best way to do modifications," he said.

Grobe said the procedure does not violate NRC rules.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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