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Plant's valves closed since '77

07/16/03

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

Engineers at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant have uncovered a problem in another safety system that is supposed to help keep the reactor under control after a major accident.

Valves in hydrogen-detection equipment have improperly been left in the closed position shut since the plant was built 26 years ago, plant staffers have concluded, and with the valves now corroded shut the system might not have worked as it should during an emergency.

The discovery raises questions about whether the equipment would have worked reliably during a major loss-of-coolant accident leading to the production of explosive hydrogen gas.

The findings were contained in a report from plant owner FirstEnergy to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission two weeks ago that was made public yesterday.

At Three Mile Island in 1979, hydrogen gas exploded in the building containing the reactor about eight hours after coolant levels dropped to the point that the nuclear core was exposed, said David Lochbaum, nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Operators there did not think the explosive gas would concentrate so quickly, he said.

The stuck valves at Davis-Besse were supposed to send cold water to a heat exchanger that would cool and dehumidify air samples drawn from the containment building after a major accident, said First Energy spokesman Todd Schneider.

The valves are corroded in the off position, Schneider said. And since there is no evidence in plant records that the valves had ever been closed for equipment maintenance, engineers reasoned in their report to the NRC that the valves were never opened to begin with.

Lochbaum said the valves are vital because they enable the heat exchanger to cool the air samples and condense the steam after a loss of coolant. Otherwise, the water vapor could mask the total amount and concentrations of hydrogen.

"It's a fairly subtle problem, and it's good that they caught it," said Lochbaum. "But you wonder is there anything else like this in the plant's systems? This is kind of like finding the air bag in your car doesn't work after hitting a wall."

That's exactly the analogy mentioned by nuclear engineer Paul Blanch, formerly of the Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut and a frequent critic of the NRC and the industry.

"This is just one more example of inoperable safety systems at Davis-Besse," said Blanch.

"I didn't see any discussion [in Davis-Besse's report] about actually testing the hydrogen monitoring system under postulated accident conditions," Blanch said. "Had this testing been done instead of just generating the paperwork that says it will work, this problem would have been identified before 1977."

The fix for the stuck valves is to simply cut them out of the water lines, said Schneider, relying on valves farther away to shut off and turn on the cold water to the equipment. The repair will be made before the company asks permission to restart the plant, now estimated for late August, he said.

The fix will be tested, said Schneider, but not under simulated accident conditions, as Blanch says NRC regulations require.

Some sort of test will have to be done to show the equipment will function, said NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng, but the agency will not dictate what the test will be.

If the company, in a separate analysis, concludes that eliminating the corroded valves is a radical change in the design of the system, then the NRC will review the repair, she said, a process that could increase the agency's involvement in the situation.

Lochbaum says that one way for the NRC to have made sure that all of Davis-Besse's systems are "scrubbed" by engineers would have been to yank its operating license as Rep. Dennis Kucinich petitioned the agency to do.

That would have forced the company to analyze every system when it applied for a new license. The NRC has tentatively rejected that petition.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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