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Wednesday, September 18, 2002

D-B eyes Dec. 7 restart

NRC has reservations

Staff writer

OAK HARBOR -- FirstEnergy officials said Tuesday the utility company hopes to have its beleaguered Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station up to full power by Dec. 7.

The problem is, the governmental regulating agency isn't quite in agreement with the plan.

FirstEnergy leaders are looking at asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to partially restart by Nov. 18, just two months away.

The plant has been shut down since workers found a football-sized hole in the reactor head -- a product of boric acid corrosion that had been occurring for years.

Officials talked of getting the containment building ready for a non-nuclear heat-up by Nov. 19, and a final 100-percent power up by Dec. 7.

One NRC regulator, however, questioned the plant's ability to restart before federal officials have a chance to view the reactor head's ability to function at partial capacity.

NRC officials, too, want to make sure the attitude has changed within the plant as well before FirstEnergy can even ask for restart approval.

The head of a the NRC's oversight panel, Jack Grobe, would not comment at a later meeting Tuesday, saying only that the plant will restart when the NRC is satisfied operation there is safe.

"The NRC is not driven by or bound to any schedule -- if and when the plant is ready, then we'll give permission," he said.

One incident in particular was a sticking point at Tuesday's meeting, a monthly occurrence between FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. officials and the NRC's oversight committee.

That incident involved the polar crane, which is used inside the containment building to assemble and disassemble the reactor components.

And while Grobe cautioned that problems found with the polar crane are not safety issues, they do show the quality, or lack thereof, of workmanship that has caused problems in the past.

The crane was found to be in "unacceptable condition" when plant official Mike Stevens personally looked it over. The inspection, however, occurred after the old reactor head was taken out and new one was installed -- using the polar crane.

The crane, FirstEnergy officials explained, was up to minimum standards, but in places was missing bolts that held the steel together. It also was missing wire labeling, had some metal shaving debris on it and light bulbs were found to be burned out.

The crane served as sort of a metaphor for the type of work that has plagued the plant and hindered it from operating properly.

Stevens said upon further investigation, he found the contractor that made improvements to the crane sped up work to meet the plant's schedule.

That is exactly the type of behavior officials at the Akron-based energy company found workers were doing in the past couple of years, which eventually led to the reactor head corrosion being missed.

In the evening meeting with just NRC officials answering questions from the public, NRC official Bill Dean said this about the situation: "It reveals and indicates that some of the underlying issues that led to vessel head degradation still need to be addressed."

Stevens told the NRC in the afternoon meeting after the polar crane problems were found, senior level management stopped work and held a meeting with project managers to emphasize a focus on quality, not necessarily hitting the schedule. "If it's not right, we can't go forward, so move the date," Stevens said of what he told project managers. "If there was any question ... on how we should proceed, that should be alleviated."

FENOC Chief Operating Officer Lew Myers added that there are 1,300 contractors swarming the Davis-Besse plant at the moment, making improvements, doing inspections and doing general repairs.

He added the crane improvements were hired out to a crane vendor that employs experts in the field.

"We're going to stop when we need to stop, and that's the message we want to give you guys," Myers told the panel of NRC officials.

And that seemed to be what Grobe wanted to hear -- he told Myers he was glad the plant "stood down" until expectations could be explained and reinforced to workers and contractors.

"It's critical those expectations come to life at the plant," Grobe added.

NRC officials pressed FirstEnergy bosses, though, about the amount of contractors at the plant and how their work could be verified to make sure it meets the plant's new standards.

In fact, through the company's walk downs of every department, every process and program, workers, contractors and managers have come up with 1,474 condition reports -- or things that need to be corrected.

Many of those condition reports will likely result in several actions required to correct the problem. Once those conditions are identified, plant and independent officials will determine which are critical for restart, and which can wait until after the plant is up.

Grobe said during the evening meeting that work is progressing at Davis-Besse, and many things are being done correctly. However, there have been things done incorrectly that inspectors have caught and employees or contractors have been required to perform the work again.

"I don't want to leave the impression all the work being done at Davis-Besse is being done poorly," Grobe said. "I also don't want to leave the impression that we have the belief all the problems have been fixed."

Management issues to be addressed today

This morning, FirstEnergy officials were expected to present a plan to correct deep-rooted management issues that have plagued the company for years. Those issues have been targeted as the real reason why workers and managers were unable to detect corrosion on the reactor head that has kept the plant shut down since February.