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Davis-Besse bosses broke rules, NRC finds


John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant's managers repeatedly violated federal rules when they created inaccurate and incomplete reports about the condition of the reactor over the last decade, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded yesterday.

The determination makes FirstEnergy Corp., owner and operator of the power plant, vulnerable to heavy fines.

An NRC spokesman said the agency will not set specific fines until its staff completes a complicated analysis to determine how dangerous to the public the reactor has been. Fines must also wait until a separate criminal investigation is wrapped up into the company's intent when it created and filed inaccurate records.

The highest fine the NRC has levied against other utilities in recent years has been $2.1 million, levied in 1997 against the operators of the Millstone nuclear power plant in Connecticut.

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said the company expects to be fined because of the number and severity of the infractions. He said the company still believes it will be ready to restart the plant by year's end, if the NRC approves.

The NRC said that FirstEnergy submitted inaccurate documents to the agency in the fall of 2001 when the company was arguing that it should not have to shut down by year's end for a special inspection.

The NRC in September 2001 asked FirstEnergy and operators of 68 other reactors similar to Davis-Besse to inspect for dangerous cracks in the alloy tubes carrying the reactor control rods through the reactor lid into the nuclear core.

The tubes, known as nozzles, had in fact been cracked at Davis-Besse for at least five years, allowing the reactor's coolant, laced with boric acid, to eat a large hole in the solid steel lid. Only a thin stainless steel liner, also beginning to crack, kept the radioactive coolant contained.

But the company argued that Davis-Besse had no cracks and added that it had kept the reactor lid clear of boric acid.

In its report yesterday, the special NRC inspection team, which spent weeks at the plant and months analyzing Davis-Besse's records, said that had the plant's documents been complete and accurate the company most likely would have seen rust problems earlier. And the NRC would have seen the urgency of shutting down the plant last fall.

In a deal cut in late November, the NRC agreed to allow Davis-Besse to operate until Feb. 16 instead of shutting it by Dec. 31.

In addition to the poor document-keeping, Davis-Besse is also violated nine other federal rules, the special inspection team concluded. Some of the rules were violated repeatedly, the team said.

Major violations included:

Operating the reactor with cracked control rod nozzles, technically a breach of one of the reactor's three barriers crucial to keeping radioactivity out of the environment.

Failing - for years - to clean dry boric acid from the top of the dome-shaped reactor lid. The buildup of the residue helped devour the steel head while hiding the damage from inspectors.

Failing to find and fix the source - the rust hole - of the rusty boric acid powder that repeatedly clogged the filters of radiation monitors in the reactor's containment building. Managers eventually decided not to use filters.

Failing to find and fix the source - again, the rust hole - of the boric acid crud that fouled the fins of the containment building air coolers.

Failing to account for unidentified coolant leaks that the NRC and the company now know were from the cracks in the control rod nozzles.

"There are no surprises here," Schneider of FirstEnergy said of the violations.

"We recognize that we made mistakes," he said.

"We have already addressed many of the issues identified by this report and will address those remaining before the plant is restarted."

One citation that could affect reactors across the country is the inspection team's conclusion that the cracked nozzle qualifies as a formal violation, which would require an immediate shutdown, said David Lochbaum, nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

UCS has in recent months argued without success that the cracks, now believed to be inevitable in older reactors, must be seen as a dangerous breach of a safety barrier.

"It's good that the NRC is citing them. I am just curious why they did not cite all the others," he said of the half-dozen other utilities that have so far repaired leaking nozzle cracks.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:, 216-999-4138, 216-999-4842

2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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