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Davis-Besse pump plan under fire

03/28/03

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

FirstEnergy Corp.'s plan to delay rebuilding two huge reactor coolant pumps at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant is drawing heavy criticism from watchdog groups and a congressman. The pumps have a history of leaking.

The delay not only poses an equipment risk, the groups say, but also shows that Davis-Besse's management - without challenge from federal regulators - is still putting production over safety.

That attitude is what got the Toledo-area plant in trouble to begin with, when company managers for years ignored leaks in the reactor's lid that eventually rusted through the barrier, said Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

"Sound familiar?" agreed David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who yesterday issued a report critical of both FirstEnergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is overseeing the plant's renovation. It has been shut down for 13 months.

Also yesterday, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich cited the pump issue as yet another reason why Davis-Besse's operating license ought to be revoked.

The Cleveland Democrat had petitioned the NRC last month to yank the plant's license and has now amended that request to include the pump concern.

A FirstEnergy spokesman said the pumps will be checked for leaks, and if necessary, repaired before Davis-Besse is put back in service. The company is racing to have the plant ready by summer, but the NRC has said many issues remain unresolved.

The massive pumps are part of a group of four, two of which have been rebuilt during the plant's current outage. Each is designed to move 90,000 gallons per minute, keeping coolant water circulating in and out of the reactor vessel. The pumps shoot coolant through a loop of pipes, moving it from the reactor core, where the liquid is superheated, to nearby tanks. There the coolant's energy is used to create steam to make electricity. Then the pumps push the coolant back into the core to repeat the cycle.

Each pump has a set of two gaskets that have been prone to leakage in the past. The company's pump contractor last July recommended "a comprehensive pump inspection/ refurbishment plan" in which the gaskets in all four pumps would be replaced with an improved model and their spinning parts would be checked for cracks.

In August, two Davis-Besse supervisors made similar recommendations. But after further study by a team of company and outside engineers, the plant's top managers decided it was acceptable to rebuild only two of the pumps.

They reasoned that since all four had been rebuilt in 1986 and had an expected operating life of 20 years before needing another overhaul, electing to work on two now and the others in a year or two was actually getting ahead of schedule.

Left unspoken by the company, though, was that tests during a plant outage in 1998 showed the two unserviced pumps were leaking, and one of them was leaking during the next round of tests in 2000. Davis-Besse workers did not leak-test the two pumps in question in 2002, nor did they check the pumps' rotating parts for cracks, even though they found such a crack in one of the pumps they elected to rebuild.

"That's like saying a car is supposed to have maintenance at 30,000 miles, and I've got an indication of something serious happening at 20,000 miles but I'm not going to deal with it," said Paul Blanch, an electrical engineer and veteran nuclear plant employee and consultant. "I don't buy that."

Former Davis-Besse engineer Andrew Siemaszko claims FirstEnergy fired him last September because he raised safety concerns about the decision to put off rebuilding the two pumps. He alleges the company has chosen not to refurbish the pumps now because they are significantly harder to get to than the two it has repaired, requiring more time and expense.

Siemaszko has filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor in an effort to get his job back.

Siemaszko "is very gratified" by the support of Kucinich and the watchdog groups regarding the pump issue, his attorney, Billie Garde, said yesterday. He is worried both about the possibility of pump problems and the implication that Davis-Besse's management is not fully reformed, Garde said.

The NRC is investigating whether there is merit to Siemaszko's pump concerns. The issue "is already under evaluation by the NRC, and we are discussing it with the utility," said Jack Grobe, who chairs the panel overseeing FirstEnergy's efforts to return Davis-Besse to service. That panel must be satisfied the plant can operate safely before giving FirstEnergy permission to restart, Grobe said.

Davis-Besse is preparing for a crucial test next month of the entire reactor coolant system's leak-tightness. If the two coolant pumps that have not yet been rebuilt show signs of leakage during that test, they'll be fixed prior to the plant's restart rather than a year or two from now, said spokesman Richard Wilkins.

"The pumps will be tested and inspected for leaks when we do that [reactor] test," Wilkins said. "At this point we don't believe we have any [pump] leakage, and that will be validated through the test."

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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