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April 18, 2002


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Regional News | Article published Thursday, April 18, 2002
Radiation found on 4 workers
Escape of particles from facility probed


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is investigating how four contract workers left FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant with radioactive particles on their clothing.

The probe into last month’s discovery occurs less than a week after top company leaders went to Washington in hopes of winning back confidence of high-level government officials concerned about problems at the Ottawa County plant.

Thirteen particles that stuck to the men have been found at various locations in Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas, including one hotel or motel in Port Clinton and a condominium there, said Victor Dricks, spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s headquarters in Rockville, Md.

While none of the radiation involved appears to be any more threatening than a typical dental X-ray, the NRC is concerned "because the circumstances suggest a loss of control of licensed material," Mr. Dricks said.

The agency on Tuesday classified the event as an "unusual occurrence" and sent a health physicist from its Midwest regional office in a Chicago suburb to Davis-Besse to investigate screening procedures.

"You don’t typically see something get out of a site and be picked up like that," Kenneth Riemer of the NRC’s reactor safety division said.

Officials from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency and the Ohio Department of Health have gone to the nuclear plant to observe the inspection.

Workers are screened for radioactive particles whenever they finish shifts in the containment area of nuclear plants and are not allowed to leave until all traces of such material are removed. That procedure is done as a safeguard.

The particles in question had a mix of niobium, zirconium, ruthenium, and cerium. Each are capable of emitting up to 6 millirems of radiation into human tissue over 24 hours, assuming the particle is not brushed, knocked, or washed from skin during that time, Mr. Dricks said.

That’s 6 percent of the 100-millirem dosage the government has set as the annual maximum exposure limit from background radiation sources, Mr. Dricks said.

Each dental X-ray emits about 10 millirems. Some medical X-rays emit as much as 40 millirems, Jay Carey, Ohio Department of Health spokesman, said.

All 13 particles that were identified were recovered and will be disposed of with other low-level radioactive material, Richard Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman, said.

Neither the NRC nor the utility would identify the Port Clinton locations where the particles were found. They would not disclose identities of the men, other than to say they were contract workers who travel around the country and who did some maintenance on Davis-Besse’s steam generator.

The issue came to FirstEnergy’s attention on March 22, when particles were found on three of those four men as they were screened upon arrival for work at Duke Energy Corp.’s Oconee nuclear power complex in South Carolina. The fourth man with contaminated clothing was en route to a job at the Comanche Peak nuclear complex in Texas, operated by TXU Electric Co.

FirstEnergy subsequently dispatched its own inspectors on a multistate search for the particles, while not revealing the information - something that has upset some Ohio government officials.

At least one particle was found in a motel or hotel in South Carolina where three of the men had been staying. Three particles were found at a private residence in Lynchburg, Va. Locations for other particles included a noncontainment area of Davis-Besse plus the Oconee and Comanche sites, Mr. Dricks said.

FirstEnergy verified all four workers had been at Davis-Besse before leaving for jobs in South Carolina and Texas but does not admit Davis-Besse is the source for the particles.

That’s because the clothing those workers wore was not believed to have been taken inside Davis-Besse’s containment area, from which the particles most likely would have been picked up. Those workers used lockers in another part of the plant and had no traces of contamination on protective gear when they suited up prior to entering the containment area, according to Mr. Wilkins.

"The clothing that was found [in South Carolina] did not come into the plant [Davis-Besse]," Mr. Wilkins said.

"We’re not saying it [the particles] didn’t come from Davis-Besse," he emphasized. "We’re saying we don’t know where it came from."

The Ohio EMA and state health department said they were notified about the stray particles Monday, more than three weeks after FirstEnergy learned about them from the South Carolina utility.

"We’re concerned with the delay in notification," said Dick Kimmins, an Ohio EMA spokesman who described the oversight as "a big deal" to his agency.

Mr. Kimmins said the public has a "justifiable concern with this."

"We’re clearly concerned with how it could have occurred in the first place. We’re aware of peoples’ concerns, especially given the recent problems at Davis-Besse," he said.

Corrosion on top of Davis-Besse’s nuclear reactor head discovered last month was described by government regulators as the worst of its kind ever found in the United States.

Five of 69 reactor nozzles developed cracks over the years, one of which allowed boric acid to leak out and burn through the top six inches of the steel lid. The only thing that prevented a hole that would have allowed radioactive steam to be released into the containment structure was a swath of stainless steel that is only three-eighths of an inch thick.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) called for the plant’s shutdown.

Gov. Bob Taft is reserving comment until the NRC completes its investigation. But the governor’s press secretary, Joe Andrews, said Mr. Taft is not completely satisfied with how things transpired.

"We should have been notified," Mr. Andrews said.

FirstEnergy officials spoke with the governor’s office this week, and notified the state EMA and health department as a "courtesy," Mr. Wilkins said.

He said the utility did not notify state officials sooner because it did not feel obligated. "There was no risk to public health or safety here," Mr. Wilkins said. "If this had been a risk, they’d have known about it immediately."

The latest federal investigation occurs less than a week after an April 10 meeting at the NRC headquarters, in which FirstEnergy had its top executives and engineers make the firm’s first formal pitch to fix Davis-Besse’s corroded reactor head. The NRC is still weeks away from deciding whether it will allow the utility to make an estimated $16 million of repairs, a project that would be the largest of its kind ever attempted on an in-service nuclear plant.

Anti-nuclear activists said the revelation about the workers unknowingly carrying radiation particles off site is stunning, given the intense scrutiny Davis-Besse has been under since the corrosion issue triggered an investigation. In addition to sending an inspection team to Davis-Besse, the NRC ordered all 68 other nuclear plants with pressurized water reactors to turn over their inspection records immediately.

"Even in this time of high-crisis investigation, Davis-Besse is not paying attention to some of the most basic regulations. It’s appalling," said Christine Patronik-Holder of the Safe Energy Communication Council.

"It’s a breakdown of the radiation protection system, which is a very serious breach in both worker and community safety. It’s another reason why the plant should not be reopened," said Shari Weir, spokeswoman for Ohio Citizen Action.

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