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Friday, August 16, 2002

FirstEnergy admits management faults

Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station

Staff writer

Management at Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in the late 1990s was more concerned about productivity than focusing on nuclear safety.

That's according to current company leaders during Thursday's meeting with Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials in the Lisle, Ill. office, which lasted five minutes shy of four hours.

Senior members of FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse's parent company, admitted they were "humbled" and "embarrassed" by the discovery of a football-sized hole in the nuclear reactor head.

Jim Dyer, a regional administrator for the NRC, said that's probably the way it should be.

"Lew (Myers, FirstEnergy COO) used a couple of terms, he said the site has a lot of pride. It struck me that it went beyond pride -- it went to arrogance, it went to isolationism," Dyer said, to the mumbled agreements of FirstEnergy officials. "You were humbled -- I think you might be beyond humbled. It might be humiliation by now."

FirstEnergy leaders told the NRC in its presentation of a new root cause report that lackadaisical decision-making at the plant contributed to the situation.

In fact, plant operators admitted that from a recovery period in the late 1980s, the attitude went from meeting and exceeding industry requirements to justifying why the plant could stay operable in the late 1990s.

"It's just amazing to me that people at Davis-Besse will tell you they know the standards and the management wasn't as strong as it used to be," Myers said at one point.

NRC officials took some responsibility for allowing Davis-Besse to slide in the late 1990s, too.

Dyer said the NRC's Region III, which regulates the Carroll Township plant, was busy watching over other power plants between 1997 and 2000 that were having problems.

"As a result, we did the minimum inspection program and focused on other sites," he said.

Steve Loehlein, an expert in root cause analysis for the Akron-based power company, said too, the programs were always in place, but workers and low-level management made poor decisions.

"It wasn't so much of doing the tasks wrong, they weren't recognizing what was in front of them," Loehlein said, adding senior management wasn't in the trenches enough to see the effects. "It goes back to the loss of safety focus."

For example, workers were cleaning filters in the containment building clogged with boron deposits -- the same thing that eventually cause the degradation of the head -- almost daily.

The right thing to do, officials said, would be to question where the boron was coming from and implement a rigorous investigation to explore all options.

Instead, the filters were cleaned more, which means treatment of only the symptom and not the actual problem, Loehlein said.

And while the plans in place at Davis-Besse met industry requirements, FirstEnergy officials said Thursday they realize now that wasn't good enough.

Implementation of the actual programs to correct and investigate problems wasn't happening, Loehlein said.

Also, workers and management at the plant thought degradation of the reactor head was a low risk because of the relatively young age of the equipment.

"From the evidence it was clear there was something going on," noted NRC official Jack Grobe. "They didn't have a recognition that (the chance of degradation) was low, it seemed like there was something more. It seemed like a recognition that it wasn't going to happen."

The focus now, Myers said, is on making sure programs don't only meet industry standards, but exceed them as well.

The company is bringing over several programs that have been mainstays at two other FirstEnergy-owned plants -- the Perry Plant and Beaver Valley Plant.

In recent months, there's been a slew of activity in replacing and reworking the senior management structure of Davis-Besse as well as talk about "ownership" of the problem and the solution.

Company officials listed Thursday a number of corrective actions they are taking, including:

*improving the managers' performance at the plant,

*revising a boric acid corrosion control program and

*improving a current program of identifying and correcting problems to meet industry standard.