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  Saturday, March 8, 2003

 Local News

D-B troubles felt across industry

Staff writer

OAK HARBOR -- When workers found massive amounts of corrosion in the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor head last March, it sent a shockwave through the nuclear industry.

It's an industry, too, that's been controversial since its inception in the late 1950s and can't take too many more black eyes before consumers lose confidence, said Nuclear Scientist Dave Lochbaum, who works for the Washington watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists.

"They need to learn as much as they can so they don't have more Davis-Besse surprises down the road," Lochbaum said during a recent telephone interview. "It doesn't take too many more of these before confidence in the industry beings to wane."

As rattling as the discovery at the Carroll Township plant was, however, the industry and its regulators felt tremors far before unearthing the hole that could hold a football at FirstEnergy's power station.

The three nuclear units at Oconee in South Carolina first gained industry attention when inspections revealed what is called circumfrential cracking in nozzles on the reactor heads in August 2001.

That cracking -- which worst case scenario would creep part or all the way around a large circular nozzle -- had never been seen before on the reactor head.

"There was, prior to Davis-Besse, the thought that if you had damaged nozzles the worst thing that would happen ... would be ejection of the nozzle," he said.

That means the nozzle would have essentially popped off like a cork, allowing coolant water to gush from the reactor.

Now, however, Davis-Besse has shown that the circumfrential cracking can lead to other problems than just the potential for an ejected nozzle.

"They found even small leakage could damage the head itself," he added.

Compounded by at least six years and hundreds of pounds of solidified boric acid crystallizing on the reactor, what likely started as a small amount of corrosion turned into a hole considered massive by nuclear industry standards.

The findings at the Carroll Township facility sent the NRC into a tailspin, at first prompting officials to send out requests to all similarly built power plants asking for responses with inspection reports and potentials for comparable findings.

Then, early this year, the NRC required all like plants to conduct interim inspections of the reactor heads -- a consequence brought on by reports that Davis-Besse's management knew of the boric acid on the reactor head but did little to clean it off.

"It expanded the scope a little bit of what the NRC was doing and accelerated the pace of what was happening," Lochbaum said.

The findings bucked not only what the nuclear industry expected to happen to aging nuclear plants (Davis-Besse turns 25 this year) but emphasized that scientists are still dealing with a relatively new technology.

"It's had a lot of impact in many ways," FirstEnergy Chief Financial Officer Richard H. Marsh said recently during an interview at his office in Akron. "The whole way this evolved, it challenged the ways of thinking because with the technology it wasn't supposed to be possible."

FirstEnergy senior management officials, too, have been active in speaking to the rest of the industry about the difficulties Davis-Besse has been through and how workers are fixing the problems -- not only technically, but on the human performance side as well.

The impact wasn't only on those who owned the plants -- although many are now taking a good, hard look at the critical safety systems that are used in the event of an emergency.

On the regulatory side, the NRC has tried to learn a few lessons of its own from Davis-Besse.

It commissioned a Lessons Learned Task Force to find out what happened on the regulatory side and come up with recommendations for fixes.

The task force submitted a list of 51 recommendations to its commission. Out of those, 49 were accepted.

The entire industry and its peripheral supporters have been going through an intense introspection, resulting in self-assessments and plans to deal with "material performance" problems, such as metals that degrade and nozzles that crack.

Originally published Saturday, March 8, 2003

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