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Posted on Sat, Apr. 06, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
FirstEnergy blamed for reactor damage
NRC faults Akron utility for Davis-Besse problems

Beacon Journal business writer

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 yesterday.

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 safety.

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 time.

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 security.

Disaster averted

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 found.

``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 was fortunate.''

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.

Proper precautions

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 this facility.''

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.


Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com
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