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Updated Friday, August 16, 2002
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Posted on Fri, Aug. 16, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
FirstEnergy admits mistakes
Its probe of Davis-Besse finds power generation topped safety as priority

Beacon Journal business writer

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 damage.

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 the truth.

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, Dyer said.

``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 problems.

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 Toledo.

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 be removed.

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 lining.

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 year.

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or
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