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Business News

FirstEnergy failed to tell NRC about reactor rust

03/27/02

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

FirstEnergy Corp. neglected to tell federal regulators last fall about years of evidence of rust at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, a company spokesman acknowledged yesterday.

Now the company says the rust - detected in filters as early as 1999 - is strong circumstantial evidence that the reactor head was being corroded by concentrated boric acid that had leaked out of the reactor.

FirstEnergy reported on March 11 that it had found a large hole eaten nearly through the 6-inch-thick carbon steel head.

"It [rust] was not a reportable event for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider explained last night.

"There are certain thresholds that you report to the NRC. This situation was not one of them."

In a report made public Monday, FirstEnergy engineers said they were aware of the rust and leakage but did not realize its significance.

The NRC in an Aug. 3 bulletin had asked FirstEnergy and other utilities to start inspections of the heads of similar reactors by Dec. 31 for cracked nozzles.

The Akron power company successfully argued that it should be allowed to operate the reactor until mid-February.

The NRC suspected there might be cracking problems at Davis-Besse and 11 other older power plants that operate pressurized water reactors.

The inspection has since been expanded to a total of 69 similar reactors, including Davis-Besse.

The company argued that previous inspections had not detected cracks in the control rod sleeves - tubes that allow boron rods to pass through the head and into stacks of radioactive fuel, controlling the reaction.

But by March 11, FirstEnergy reported it had not only discovered cracks in five of the sleeves but also a large hole in the center of the 6-inch carbon steel head, leaving only a ~-inch thick stainless steel cladding on the inside of the head to keep the coolant inside the reactor.

David Lochbaum, an engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the rust and boric acid deposits "should have made bells and whistles go off."

"Boric acid [normally in the reactor coolant] is not supposed to be on top of the reactor," he said. "These were signs that something was wrong. This [the company's response] is troubling.

"I'm not trying to blame anyone," Lochbaum added. "I don't think this was willfully withheld from the NRC. But it is only after the fact [of corrosion] that they could say, Oh, yeah, that was important.' "

NRC spokesman Jan Strasma yesterday declined to comment on the company's omission of what turned out to be crucial evidence that the reactor head had significant leaks and something was rapidly rusting.

"We are in the middle of an investigation. We still have inspectors there," said Strasma. "That is the whole point: What information was available to indicate that they had a problem, and how did they deal with that information?"

Contact John Funk at:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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