OAK HARBOR - FirstEnergy Corp. and its
predecessors failed to take proper steps years ago to stop boric
acid leaks that led to significant damage and a nearly devastating
accident at theDavis-Besse nuclear power plant, the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission bluntly told more than 200 people here
One step included failing to notify federal regulators about
significant levels of rust clogging filters inside the plant. The
rust was caused by boric acid corrosion of the reactor vessel head,
which covers the radioactive fuel core. In addition, regulators said
they recommended as early as 1990 that the Davis-Besse reactor
vessel head be modified to allow for easier inspection and cleaning,
but the modifications were never performed.
While the NRC's preliminary report from its own independent
inspection team at the Lake Erie shoreline plant put much of the
blame on FirstEnergy, the commission members said they shared blame
as well. Audience members also pointed fingers at federal regulators
for what they said was lax oversight that jeopardized public
NRC officials said they couldn't say if their own two on-site
inspectors at Davis-Besse failed to take note of signs or review
reports that could have tipped them off early that the reactor was
developing a problem. The NRC inspectors work at the plant full
The Oak Harbor High School auditorium, built in large part with
tax revenue from the nearby nuclear power plant, was more than
halfway filled for the three-hour meeting that concluded shortly
before noon. The NRC called the community meeting to release its
initial findings on what created two cavities in the reactor vessel
head at the plant.
Protesters carried signs that read ``Mothballs Yes Band Aids
No,'' ``Doh!'' ``Blah Blah Blah,'' ``Davis Besse exp. date: February
2002'' and more. Plant supporters also sat in the audience, along
with a handful of financial analysts and a large number of reporters
and photographers. Sheriffs, state and local police provided
Officials said just a 3/16 -inch-thick lining of stainless steel
inside the reactor vessel head prevented a nearly devastating ``loss
of coolant'' accident. That's a scenario under which radioactive
coolant, at 600 degrees Fahrenheit and at 2,200 pounds of pressure
per square inch, jets into the massive containment chamber that
encloses the reactor. The Davis-Besse stainless-steel cladding bent
but didn't break under the intense pressure, investigators
``There was an unacceptable reduction in the margin of safety at
the Davis-Besse plant,'' said Jim Dyer, regional administrator for
the NRC's Chicago office that oversees Ohio nuclear plants. ``The
cladding wasn't designed to be pressure containing. But it did. That
If the stainless-steel cladding had failed, fail-safe systems
would have prevented any radioactivity from getting into the
environment, he said. ``It still would have been a radiological mess
inside the containment (chamber).''
``This is a big deal,'' NRC spokesman Jan Strasma said. ``Had
they followed the corrosion and boric acid programs in '88 and their
own (corrosion control program), they would have found the problem
sooner.... When you have filter changes going from monthly to every
other day, you have something major going on.''
Had the NRC been aware of the increased filter changes, it never
would have agreed to allow the plant to continue operating past Dec.
31 last year, said Brian Sheron, the NRC's associate director for
project licensing and technical. All nuclear power plants were
supposed to conduct safety inspections by Dec. 31 to look for
evidence of cracking in devices called nozzles on top of the reactor
vessel head; FirstEnergy got an extension through mid-February to
shut the plant down and do the inspection.
Sheron said the NRC did know about dry boric acid deposits on top
of the Davis-Besse reactor vessel head. Those boric acid deposits
did not necessarily indicate a corrosion problem, he said.
The NRC plans to step up its inspections at Davis-Besse, and
officials said they could not rule out sanctions against
FirstEnergy, depending on findings.
While the NRC placed much of the blame on the Akron utility, its
findings mirrored almost exactly FirstEnergy's own preliminary
analysis of the reactor damage that was released more than a week
ago. The plant has been closed since mid-February, following a
scheduled refueling outage and safety inspection. That inspection
turned up the acid-created damage in March.
Apologies yesterday from FirstEnergy executives, which included
statements that the company planned to learn from the experience,
were laughed at by some audience members.
``We have been open, honest and truthful,'' said Bob Saunders,
president of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. ``We are responsible
to you, the public, and the NRC. We are clearly responsible for the
condition of the reactor head. We will learn from this.''
``We were mistaken. It was our responsibility to expect the
unexpected and we did not do so in this case. We will learn from
this,'' said Howard Bergendahl, vice president of the Davis-Besse
plant for FirstEnergy.
Jack Grobe, director of the division of reactor safety for the
NRC region III, said the damage could have been prevented if the
utility had implemented a proper maintenance program.
``It should have been prevented,'' Grobe said. He said he isn't
concerned about similar safety issues at the 68 other similar
pressurized water reactors in the nation. ``Boric acid corrosion is
not a new issue. You discover boric acid and you clean it up, take
action to prevent future leaks. You have to identify problems and
you have to fix problems. It's that simple.''
But Grobe also said properly identifying potential problems at
complex nuclear power plants isn't easy.
The NRC's resident inspectors cannot be aware of all maintenance
activities at the plants, he said. The NRC largely depends on
information supplied by the plant operators.
There is no requirement that Davis-Besse had to notify the NRC
about the increased change in filters, one of the signs that could
have tipped off the plant that there was a boric acid corrosion
problem, he said.
Joyce Pryke, 57, who said she lives about 20 miles away from
Davis-Besse, pressed Grobe in a related afternoon meeting about
whether the in-house NRC inspectors knew about the increased filter
changes. He said he didn't know. The two NRC inspectors, who were at
the meeting, didn't comment.
``In any case, we should have recognized it,'' FirstEnergy
spokesman Todd Schneider said.
NRC-recommended modifications weren't done to the Davis-Besse
reactor vessel head in large part because that would have meant
exposing plant workers to significant amounts of radiation, plant
spokesman Richard Wilkins said. The cost of making the modifications
was not a factor, he said.
Nuclear opponent Paul Gunter of the Washington-based Nuclear
Information & Resource Service said both Davis-Besse management
and the NRC are to blame for the plant's problems.
``Clearly the utility violated rudimentary safety margins,'' he
said. ``What we're trying to say is there is more than technical
issues here. They need to look at gross systematic mismanagement of
A coalition of Ohio environmental and consumer groups appeared at
the Oak Harbor hearing, vowing to oppose any repairs or restart of
Davis-Besse. The coalition said it would act as a watchdog for the
plant and regulators.
The group's statement called for a comprehensive inspection of
the plant and the appointment of an independent team of scientists
and engineers who are not employed by utilities or the NRC. The team
would inspect the plant and review all documents and
recommendations, the group said.