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NRC says it could have found Davis-Besse damage earlier

The Associated Press
10/9/02 6:00 PM

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- The federal agency that oversees nuclear power plants failed to perform inspections that could have detected damage at an Ohio plant much earlier, according to an agency review released Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's internal report blamed both the agency and the plant's operator for failing to adequately review and assess operations that led to an acid leak.

"If focused inspections had been performed, then the NRC may have ultimately discovered the nozzle leaks," the report said.

Boric acid nearly ate through a 6-inch-thick steel reactor cap at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, creating the most extensive corrosion ever found on a U.S. nuclear reactor.

It led to a nationwide review of all 69 similar plants. A second, smaller hole was found later at Davis-Besse.

Inspectors found the first leak in March, during a maintenance shutdown at the plant along Lake Erie. The NRC said it should have been spotted up to four years earlier.

NRC staff members not associated with oversight of Davis-Besse handled the review. Agency spokesman Jan Strasma said NRC managers will review recommendations in the report and determine what policy changes will be made within the organization.

"Certainly there'll be changes made," he said.

Strasma added that the blame should not be focused on individual inspectors who are often limited by what they can look at and the amount of time they have at each plant.

"It doesn't mean it's a shortcoming of that inspector," he said. "It could be a shortcoming of the process."

David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he hopes the report will bring change to the agency. The report made more than 50 recommendations.

"This is a first step," he said. "We need to see how successful the agency is at making these changes happen."

The report said the NRC and the nuclear industry did not consider boric acid deposits as a safety concern because no one thought it would cause significant corrosion.

A former NRC senior inspector became aware of the deposits during a 2000 shutdown at the plant but never notified superiors or inspected the area more closely, the report said.

The federal agency last week said another team of inspectors found violations of 10 federal regulations at the plant.

The plant's operator, FirstEnergy Corp., failed to take action to correct multiple safety concerns and violated rules for operating the reactor, the report said.

Davis-Besse spokesman Richard Wilkins said Wednesday that the company is now focusing on improving its own inspections and standards.

"Had we met our own standards, we wouldn't be dealing with this issue," Wilkins said.

Akron-based FirstEnergy is paying about $200 million to repair the plant, install a new lid and buy replacement power until it is restarted. The reactor has been shut down since Feb. 16.

Workers have removed the damaged reactor head and replaced it. The company wants to restart the plant early next year, but regulators have not indicated when they will allow it to operate again.


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