Electricity production, not safety, became the top priority at
the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in the 1990s, ownerFirstEnergy
Corp. admitted Thursday. As a result, boric acid seriously damaged
the reactor at the plant on the Lake Erie shore.
``We gave away the margin of safety,'' said Steve Loehlein, who
headed a FirstEnergy team that examined what led to the Davis-Besse
The Akron utility also is investigating conflicts it has found on
work orders and condition reports relating to the damaged part, a
company official said. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it has
found inaccurate information provided by FirstEnergy but has not
determined if there have been any willful violations of regulations.
The NRC's Office of Investigations, which can look into criminal
matters, is reviewing the documents.
FirstEnergy executives made those disclosures as they met with
NRC officials at the agency's Illinois regional office -- which
covers Ohio -- to provide their analysis of how management failed to
do its job in running the plant, which is closed for repairs.
Plant management also failed to follow and enforce regulations
that would have prevented the unprecedented creation of two cavities
on top of the steel reactor vessel head, which covers the
radioactive fuel core, utility executives acknowledged. In addition,
plant staff glossed over signs that the reactor was slowly being
damaged, they told the NRC.
``As an organization, we are very humble and very embarrassed,''
said Lew Myers, chief operating officer for FirstEnergy's nuclear
power plant subsidiary.
The Akron utility's executives came under severe criticism and
pointed questions at the end of the four-hour meeting; one nuclear
power critic wondered whether FirstEnergy could be trusted to tell
Jim Dyer, regional administrator of the NRC's Chicago-area
office, said FirstEnergy has to exceed the commission's expectations
for the plant to be restarted.
The utility cannot rely upon the NRC to set proper safety values,
``The utility needs to get out ahead of it,'' Dyer said. If
First-Energy takes action based solely on what it thinks the NRC
expects, ``it will be a long, hard restart process,'' he said.
Barb from NRC official
After FirstEnergy's Myers at one point referred to how much pride
Davis-Besse staff had in the plant, Dyer said: ``It went beyond
pride. It went into arrogance. I think you might be beyond humbled.
I think you're into humiliation.''
But Dyer also said the NRC shared in the blame, noting that it
did only a minimal number of inspections of the plant from 1997 to
2001 because the commission diverted resources to looking into what
it thought were more troubled nuclear plants.
FirstEnergy's report concluded:
• Plant management decided that
taking minimum actions to meet regulatory requirements was adequate
for nuclear safety.
• The management's style was to be
less involved in details of day-to-day operations.
• Davis-Besse was allowed to be
restarted and run for extended periods with degraded components.
• Staffers' philosophy was that
issues weren't serious unless proven to be.
• As the threat of vessel-head
damage increased over the years, Davis-Besse staffers were less
rigorous in applying processes that would have warded off
Also, in the late 1990s, when FirstEnergy was created and the
plant was acquired, a new incentive program for senior management
rewarded them more for meeting or exceeding production goals than
for safety measures, the report said. Safety incentives remained in
place at lower management levels, Loehlein said.
While the company's investigation did not find that the change in
incentives affected decisions made by top managers, the company
needs to look at the disconnect in the incentive program, Loehlein
and Myers said.
FirstEnergy's report listed numerous ways it has taken corrective
action, including installing a new senior management team at
Davis-Besse, which is in Oak Harbor about 25 miles east of
In `complete denial'
Jack Grobe, the NRC's director of reactor safety who heads the
agency panel that will say when Davis-Besse can restart, said plant
personnel were in ``complete denial'' that something was wrong with
the reactor over a period of years.
``The evidence was clear something was going on,'' Grobe said.
Although industry studies showed a low probability that boric acid
could damage a nuclear reactor vessel head, Davis-Besse's management
apparently believed it would not happen, he and others said. Plant
management allowed dry boric acid deposits to remain on top of the
vessel head even though federal regulations required that the acid
The acid damage to Davis-Besse was found in March after the
reactor was powered down in mid-February for refueling and a safety
inspection. Boric acid, part of the reactor coolant, leaked through
tiny cracks on top of the vessel head. The acid, over a period of
four to six years, created two cavities into the 6-inch-thick carbon
steel part. The largest cavity ate through all 6 inches of the
vessel head, stopping only when it hit a thin stainless-steel inner
FirstEnergy will replace the damaged vessel head with an unused
head it bought from a nuclear plant in Michigan. The Akron utility
said Davis-Besse will be ready to be restarted by the end of the
year, although many analysts think the NRC won't consider giving a
go-ahead until sometime in 2003. FirstEnergy could pay as much as
$300 million for repairs and buying replacement electricity this