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Thursday, September 19, 2002

FirstEnergy unveils its fix-up package

Staff writer

CARROLL TOWNSHIP -- FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. has laid out a bevy of plans to fix "substandard operations" that officials say caused the reactor head corrosion issues at Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station.

FirstEnergy officials presented the plan Wednesday morning in a four-hour meeting with Nuclear Regulatory Commission members in the Davis-Besse auditorium.

Many of the plan's points will have to be in place before the plant returns to service, which company officials are looking at by Dec. 7. Davis-Besse has been off-line since a routine refueling outage in the spring when workers found boric acid corrosion on the reactor head.

And while NRC officials continually questioned the company's methods and practices, pressing for answers as to how the problem could have existed, FirstEnergy received some praise at the end.

"It was comprehensive ... and I want to thank you for your candor," said Jack Grobe, chairman of the NRC's oversight panel, which was formed to watch over the plant as it worked toward restart. "Our goal is not to endorse, accept or approve any of the areas, just to listen as you gain understanding in those areas. ... I think this is a good focus."

The Akron-based energy company created the slew of oversight boards, employee forums and independent reviews to turn around a plant culture more focused on production than safety.

Because of that culture, as well as lax upper management, the company is now expected to spend $55 million to $75 million on the head replacement project.

And NRC officials want to know, too, how inaccurate reporting in recent years affected the decisions of managers.

A special team chartered by the NRC found that many of the inspection reports showed inaccurate statements about how clean the reactor head was from boric acid.

Some reports showed the head was clean, despite there still being deposits of boric acid on it, Grobe pressed.

Plant quality assessment manager Steve Loehlein responded: "The standard had gotten to the point where cleaning the head meant cleaning as best could be done -- that was really the standard, and after each outage boric acid had been left on the head."

Grobe suggested those inaccurate reports misled higher-ups to believe there was minimal boric acid leakage onto the head.

FirstEnergy vice president of oversight Bill Pearce added there were multiple other "fairly obvious" indications that the boric acid was not being cleaned off.

"There was some misinformation but there was plenty of other evidence that should have led us to the right conclusion," he said.

Currently, the NRC's Office of Investigation is looking at those documents to see if the inaccurate information was willful or the result of errors or misinformation.

If it was willful, there could be fines levied against the company.

They key to the entire restart process, company officials said, is improvement to the corrective action process.

Both FirstEnergy and NRC officials agree managers and workers did not go through the process to fix problems adequately when trying to determine what was causing the boric acid.

Company officials feel the program was fine, but elements of corrective action were not used properly by workers. For example, managers did not categorize the boric acid on the head as a major concern.

Instead, they were confident the acid was coming from a known flange leak, rather than from a nozzle -- the real culprit, and indicator of a much more serious problem.

Among the Akron-based energy company's goals are to:

*create a business plan to align performance incentives based on safety,

*create several panels, committees and boards to ensure oversight and quality work,

augment the staff to have "bench strength" so when a supervisor leaves there are support staff to take over,

*create management monitors to watch over managers,

*bring in independent investigators to review conditions reported by employees to ensure they are taken seriously,

*ensuring that the highest managers all the way down to workers are on the same page, and all adhere to the same values and principals through "vertical alignment."

"That's the most important thing from a people perspective that we have going right now," said Pearce of the vertical alignment.