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June 14, 2002


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Regional News | Article published Thursday, June 13, 2002
Davis-Besse may get help
France has experience in reactor head replacement
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.
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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 none.

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 Rockville, Md.

Rather than risk the possibility of endangering public safety, France has been aggressive about replacing its weakened reactor heads.

That country anticipated cracked nozzles as a sign of stress that "was the beginning of a disease that wasn’t going to get better," Dr. Hackett said.

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.

That type 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 building.

Davis-Besse became the second such plant: One of nine cracks found on Davis-Besse nozzles in March was circumferential, NRC officials said.

FirstEnergy officials 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 construction flaws.

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.

"It gets 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 head.

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 part."

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 1990s.

The task force consists of NRC officials from outside the agency’s Midwest regional office that oversees Davis-Besse.

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 Arlington, Texas.

More articles on this subject »
The Editors: Davis-Besse at critical juncture, expert says 06/14/2002
Davis-Besse topic of 3 meetings 06/07/2002
N-plants will be told to improve inspections 06/07/2002
Davis-Besse makes pricey plans 06/06/2002
NRC officials back Davis-Besse reactor-head plan 06/05/2002

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