| Article published Thursday, June 13, 2002|
Davis-Besse may get help
France has experience in reactor head
(THE BLADE/ALLAN DETRICH)Nuclear Regulatory
Commission officials Bob Haag, Art Howell, and Ed Hackett,
from left, meeting at Oak Harbor High School, discuss
remedying the Davis-Besse situation.
BLADE STAFF WRITER
OAK HARBOR, Ohio - The U.S. government will
draw from France’s experience in replacing nuclear plant reactor
heads when it decides whether to allow the same thing to occur at
FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant, Nuclear Regulatory
Commission officials said here yesterday.
A world leader that
NRC officials claim has surpassed the United States in some aspects
of nuclear energy research, France already has some experience in
replacing in-service reactor heads.
The United States has
The European country’s introduction to that issue
started with cracked reactor-head nozzles that were first discovered
at its Bugey Unit 3 plant in 1989, a problem that "obviously showed
the potential" existed in France for the type of massive corrosion
found at Davis-Besse three months ago, according to Dr. Edwin M.
Hackett, assistant chief of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s
material engineering branch at the agency’s headquarters in
Rather than risk the possibility of
endangering public safety, France has been aggressive about
replacing its weakened reactor heads.
anticipated cracked nozzles as a sign of stress that "was the
beginning of a disease that wasn’t going to get better," Dr. Hackett
Davis-Besse will be the first U.S. nuclear plant to
have a reactor head replaced, unless the project falls farther off
schedule. The Oconee 3 unit in South Carolina is to have a new
reactor head, made of steel with greater corrosion resistance,
installed next spring, NRC officials said.
In February, 2001,
the Oconee plant became the first in the United States where
dangerous circumferential-type cracks were found.
of defect has the potential to weaken nozzles so much, they can be
ejected from the reactor head while the plant is operating. Such an
incident would fill the containment area with radioactive steam,
testing the structural limits of the containment
Davis-Besse became the second such plant: One of
nine cracks found on Davis-Besse nozzles in March was
circumferential, NRC officials said.
outlined their plans for getting Davis-Besse running again by the
end of the year with an older generation reactor head - a 1975 model
France-based Framatome ANP bought from the Midland 2 nuclear plant
in Michigan. That reactor head, though made of steel that rusts more
quickly than newer models, was never used because construction
ceased at Midland in 1984.
FirstEnergy has obtained the
rights to buy that head once tests are completed on it. Then, during
shutdowns in either 2010 or 2012, FirstEnergy plans to replace the
Midland reactor head at Davis-Besse with a newer model Framatome is
to finish building by spring of 2004.
But before that first
swap-out can be authorized, the utility must address several
technical and human performance issues raised by an eight-member NRC
oversight panel during a three-hour meeting yesterday at Oak Harbor
High School. Panel chairman Jack Grobe, reactor safety director for
the NRC’s Midwest region, said tiny gaps have been found near the
foundation of the containment building, possibly a result of
Although the plant operated for 25 years
without apparently being affected, he questioned whether FirstEnergy
has been aggressive enough in determining the extent to which
surface rust might have penetrated those crevices.
to the level of how inquisitive they are," he said. He said he also
questions the utility’s diligence in finding out the extent to which
airborne boric acid in the containment building might have had a
long-term effect on equipment other than the reactor
Bill Dean, NRC deputy director of inspection program
management, likened FirstEnergy’s recent management overhaul to a
hard-luck baseball team firing its manager. He said the utility must
convince the NRC it has improved the attitude of all employees, not
just made some cosmetic changes at the top.
"Hardware is easy
to assess and easy to fix," Mr. Grobe agreed. "This is the hard
Earlier in the day, residents heard for the first time
from a special NRC task force assigned to look for regulatory
breakdowns in the wake of problems that some government officials
believe went undiagnosed or unreported at Davis-Besse for much of
The task force consists of NRC officials from
outside the agency’s Midwest regional office that oversees
Plans call for at least four NRC officials and
one state official to spend about 10 days at Davis-Besse full-time,
starting June 24.
The team’s research is to include thousands
of pages of records within this region and at NRC headquarters, plus
interviews with government officials and plant employees, and a
video review of past inspections to see if there were tell-tale
signs that were overlooked or ignored, NRC officials said. heir
findings are due in early September.
Lew Myers, FirstEnergy
chief operating officer, vowed a fresh start for the utility in both
equipment and attitude. He pledged full cooperation with the NRC
task force. "We will support you and your staff as much as
possible," he told task force chairman Arthur T. Howell III, of
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