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Davis-Besse restart remains on hold

02/13/04

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters Oak Harbor-

The safety- first culture at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant has improved enough to earn the approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's special panel over seeing rehabilitation of the troubled facility.

But the panel stopped well short of agreeing with Davis- Besse's managers that the plant and its workers are ready to restart Davis-Besse's reactor.

That decision is still weeks away at minimum, said top NRC officials, and will require more inspections, perhaps more information from the company and extensive deliberations, first among the panel members, then among NRC officials in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

That would put the restart past the two-year anniversary of the March 5, 2002, discovery of a gaping corrosion hole in the reactor's lid. The unprecedented corrosion, the result of a leak that went unnoticed for at least four years, was the worst nuclear incident in the U.S. since Three Mile Island's partial meltdown in 1979.

One problem nagging at panel members is that while the safety culture at the plant seems to have improved overall, employees in key departments expressed less confidence in Davis-Besse's management at the end of 2003 than they did a year earlier. That finding, revealed in a November survey, and validated by the agency's inspectors in the last few weeks, makes the agency nervous.

That anxiety was apparent Thursday night as a standing- room-only crowd of about 200, many of whom appeared to be Davis-Besse workers, packed into the Ohio National Guard's Camp Perry clubhouse for the last public hearing before the NRC makes its decision on a restart.

Even before the hearing, Sam Collins, deputy executive director for operations at NRC headquarters and one of the officials who will help make the final decision, questioned how the panel could accept the safety culture in the face of the decline in confidence of some employees.

NRC Midwest Regional Administrator Jim Caldwell said once he gets the oversight panel's recommendation, it will probably take him two to three weeks to reach a final decision about Davis-Besse's future in consultation with Collins and Jim Dyer, who heads the office of nuclear reactor regulation near Washington. Caldwell said he will pay special attention to the impression left by the November employees survey.

Company officials tried to make their best case in the face of the questioning.

"It's been a challenging couple of years for Davis-Besse and the company," Gary Leidich, president of FirstEnergy's nuclear operating company and chief nuclear officer, told the panel in a kind of kickoff speech. "But we are looking forward to running Davis-Besse again."

The company is making sure it can learn from the experience, he said, and pledged a strong safety focus "24 hours a day, seven days a week." But later, when Leidich tried to wrap up the presentation, Jack Grobe, head of the NRC committee overseeing Davis-Besse, came back to the recent slippage in employee confidence. "The overall safety culture, as you assess it, has continued to improve," Grobe said. "But there are these blips."

Chief Operating Officer Lew Myers recapped in great detail the work the utility has done over the past 24 months as it spent hundreds of millions of dollars to repair equipment, create new management-supervision programs and build a culture that emphasizes safety first.

That work included replacing the rust-damaged lid with one from Michigan, installing a state- of-the art German-made leak- monitoring system, greatly enlarging the emergency sump in the floor of the reactor building, and making unprecedented modifications to clog-prone emergency high-pressure pumps crucial to keeping the nuclear core cool during a coolant-loss accident.

"In March of 2002, we hit the bottom," Myers said. "We, the staff, have accomplished a lot since then, and today we have bounced back."

But that "bounce" did not seem to be enough to satisfy Grobe. He interrupted Myers' presentation at least three times trying to get him to answer why the performance of Davis-Besse's managers and workers is, to this day, still inconsistent at times.

"My question is, why is it that some of your programs, your calculations, and engineering reviews are done very well," Grobe pressed, "and some we find problems with?"

Because NRC inspectors - rather than Davis-Besse employees - have turned up significant problems in crucial programs, Grobe said the decision to allow a restart is tough for the oversight group.

"One of the very difficult challenges I face and we face as panel members," Grobe said, "is you don't have to be perfect to be authorized for restart. Nobody's perfect. There's been a steady improvement in performance, but there's also been these blips. We need to be confident that you are going to perform consistently well."

Site Vice President Mark Bezilla got the same treatment as he presented a new program that he said would assure that operations continue to improve through self-assessment and the use of outside consultants.

"The way I interpret this pro gram," Grobe said, "is that it has all the right pieces. The challenge is putting it into action, making it alive. You haven't always found your own problems. We've helped you. What are you going to do to be confident you'll find [the problems]?"

Many in the crowd urged the NRC to approve the plant's restart. A large banner signed by scores of plant employees hung at the back of the meeting room. In large letters, it said: "A start to a new beginning - built to last. The plant is ready and so are we!"

"It's now time to restart the plant safely," said Jere Witt, Ottawa County administrator and a member of FirstEnergy's outside nuclear review board. "I caution that we as a community will be watching closely to make sure FirstEnergy operates the plant safely and the NRC provides the appropriate regulation."

But there were opponents. U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, though not present because he is campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, sent a staffer to read his comments: "Neither the NRC nor the company can be trusted, and the agency ought to at least wait until the conclusion of a federal grand jury investigation into whether the company's inaccurate and incomplete record-keeping at Davis-Besse was criminally negligent."

Ohio Citizen Action's leader also spoke against allowing the plant to restart, reasoning that changing the culture of the plant is "like turning around an aircraft carrier and does not happen quickly."

"FirstEnergy's financial situation, which drives its 'production over safety' mentality, is even worse than it was two years ago," Citizen Action Executive Director Sandy Buchanan said in a prepared statement arguing that FirstEnergy cannot be trusted to make safety culture permanent.

To contact these Plain Dealer reporters: jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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