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Congressional briefing focuses on Davis-Besse repairs

10/25/02

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

The FirstEnergy Corp. managers and engineers at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant would have been thrown off a nuclear-powered naval ship, a lawyer for the company said yesterday.

The admission came under questioning by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich during a two-hour congressional briefing on Davis-Besse held in Cleveland City Council chambers. Davis-Besse's staff allowed the plant to develop - over many years - a large, dangerous corrosion hole in the reactor lid.

"What would Adm. Rickover have done?" Kucinich asked lawyer and engineer George Edgar, a partner in a powerful Washington, D.C., law firm and a former staffer for the late Adm. Hyman Rickover, who is considered the "father" of the nuclear navy.

"Would they have been on his ship?" Kucinich demanded after Edgar said the managers "failed to connect the dots" of evidence indicating the lid was actively rusting.

"No," replied Edgar.

Kucinich grilled Edgar and Jack Grobe, the chairman of a special committee established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oversee the company's efforts to restore the reactor and improve its management and staff.

The plant must also increase its focus on safety.

Kucinich said the two-hour session was just the first of many he will hold on the plant. The congressman kept the tone of the conference low-key even as he asked tough questions about how the plant got into such a mess and why the agency did not shut it down last fall when trouble was suspected.

FirstEnergy shut down Davis-Besse in February for refueling and an NRC-mandated inspection for cracks in nozzle-like tubes that pass through the reactor's lid. Inspectors in March found the cracks - and the rust hole created by boric acid-laced coolant that had escaped through the cracks.

FirstEnergy hopes to restart the reactor early next year, but the company must first convince the NRC it can operate it safely.

Also participating in the briefing were Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nuclear watchdog group, and perennial Davis-Besse critic and lawyer Howard Whitcomb, a former preventive maintenance manager at the plant, former NRC inspector and still an Oak Harbor resident near the plant, which is near Toledo.

"I was trained by Adm. Rickover and served in the submarine service," Whitcomb said. "Personal accountability is absolutely fundamental. Harsh consequences for those who fail to comply is an absolute must."

FirstEnergy and every other utility that operates commercial reactors ought to have expectations similar to those of the military, he said, if the industry and government expect the public to trust them.

The rust did more than eat a hole in the reactor lid, joined in Gunter.

It ate a hole in the public's confidence both in FirstEnergy and in the NRC.

"FirstEnergy told the NRC it had done more and better inspections than anyone," Gunter said, recalling the company's arguments to the agency last fall when it won approval to put off inspections and run until February. "That was false. There were 900 pounds of boric acid on top on the reactor head, and the top [center] had never been cleaned."

Gunter also questioned how the NRC's top officials could have put aside a shutdown order last November that the agency's staff spent months preparing because they were convinced Davis-Besse's lid had leaking nozzles.

"The question is whether the NRC is willing to step in when its regulations are violated," he said. "If it means revoking of [plant operating] licenses for mismanagement, then so be it."

The NRC's Grobe said the agency did not have all of the information last fall that investigations have since turned up. And the company did in fact submit "incomplete and inaccurate" information, Edgar admitted.

"If the Davis-Besse plant does some day restart," said Grobe, the special NRC committee he chairs must first have confidence the engineering and maintenance issues have been solved and the company has the ability to operate it safely.

Kucinich said the NRC's recent self-evaluation detailing how it failed in its oversight duties along with FirstEnergy's willingness to admit its bad management lead to the rust hole are positive signs that Davis-Besse may be able to restart and operate safely.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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