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Posted on Wed, Sep. 18, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Reactor still facing many tests
Even as FirstEnergy aims for Dec. 7 restart, trouble persists at Davis-Besse

Beacon Journal business writer

FirstEnergy hopes to restart its Davis-Besse nuclear power plant as soon as Dec. 7, but it is again being forced to explain shoddy workmanship, this time regarding the crane used to lift a huge replacement part into place.

Meeting with FirstEnergy managers Tuesday at Oak Harbor High School, Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said they still have many questions about the plant and its work force, including management.

In particular, NRC officials questioned why plant managers and supervisors did not prevent slipshod workmanship on the large crane inside the reactor. The upgrade was started after the crane had been used to help remove the old vessel head and install the new one.

The NRC and FirstEnergy are scheduled to meet this morning to discuss how the Akron utility is working to correct management and work force deficiencies at the power plant.

``It's clear that in at least one work activity you haven't addressed the issues,'' Jack Grobe, an NRC official, said. ``It's critical those expectations come to life in the plant.''

NRC permission is necessary before the plant can restart, but he said more work needs to be done.

``The important thing is, we are not committed to restart,'' said Grobe, chairman of a panel checking into the readiness of Davis-Besse. ``We are committed to safety.''

Mike Stevens, director of maintenance at Davis-Besse, said he discovered during an inspection of work on the interior crane that screws were missing on some panels, light bulbs were out, metal shavings were left behind and other parts of the project did not meet standards. The crane was being upgraded by a contractor, he said.

A contractor's employee working on the crane was more concerned about meeting a schedule than replacing light bulbs or making sure all the panel screws were filled in, Stevens said. While work on the crane has been halted, he and others have used the opportunity to emphasize to plant employees and contractors the need to meet quality goals, not schedules, he said.

``The crane wasn't falling apart,'' said Lew Myers, chief operating officer for FirstEnergy's Nuclear Operating Co. ``It just didn't meet our requirements.''

The crane work did not affect plant safety, Grobe said. He said his concern is that it took Stevens, a senior manager, to catch the workmanship problems.

Work continues to progress at the plant, including major upgrades of some safety systems, FirstEnergy managers said. About 1,300 contractors are on site working on repairs, upgrades and maintenance, Myers said. The plant has about 800 full-time employees as well.

Davis-Besse has been kept shut down since early March after a safety inspection found two boric acid-created cavities on top of the plant's former reactor vessel head. The Akron utility has acknowledged that its concerns about profit, not safety, led to the damage. An inspection of the damaged vessel head in the past two weeks found tiny cracks on a thin stainless steel lining, all that was left to hold back high pressure, radioactive coolant at the location of the largest of the two cavities.

The new vessel head is in place, and nuclear fuel could be installed as early as Oct. 30 as part of a testing process to bring the plant back up to full power and generating electricity by early December, FirstEnergy managers said. The NRC does not have to approve the refueling, Grobe said. A schedule unveiled at Tuesday's meeting showed that FirstEnergy hopes to get NRC approval to restart the nuclear plant on Nov. 18 and gradually bring it up to full power.

``There's a lot that has to happen before then,'' Grobe said. Final authority on allowing Davis-Besse to restart rests with NRC regional administrator Jim Dyer, in consultation with NRC headquarters, Grobe said.

A massive hole cut into the concrete and steel containment building that protects the nuclear reactor will be repaired in upcoming weeks. The hole was needed to remove the old vessel head and to install the new one, which came from an unused nuclear reactor in Michigan.

FirstEnergy will install a new sump system at Davis-Besse that will significantly improve plant safety if there is a loss of coolant accident inside the containment chamber, officials said. The sump would be used to recirculate water back into the reactor to keep it cool. The larger the sump, the better the safety margin, officials said. The Davis-Besse upgrade will enlarge the area of the sump from about 50 square feet to as much as 1,200 square feet.

The company will also install a new, permanent seal around the reactor at a cost of several million dollars that will minimize coolant leaks that typically occur during the refueling process, Myers said. The company previously has used a series of temporary seals that were prone to leaks, he said.

Cost of the repair project could hit as much as $300 million.

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