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Probe, low morale hound Davis-Besse

09/19/02

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

Oak Harbor, Ohio

- Two new obstacles surfaced yesterday to FirstEnergy Corp.'s aggressive schedule for getting the Davis-Besse nuclear plant back into operation by Dec. 7.

One is the high level of distrust that plant workers have toward the new management, as shown by an employee survey made public yesterday during a meeting between Davis-Besse's top brass and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The second hurdle is the NRC's criminal investigation into whether the "inaccurate and incomplete" reactor maintenance records the agency says FirstEnergy kept were meant to keep data from the government.

That investigation must be wrapped up, corrective actions must be taken, and the lack of confidence revealed by the survey must be addressed if the Toledo-area plant is to have a hope of meeting its self-imposed timetable, NRC officials said.

"Your challenge is substantial," Jack Grobe, who heads the special NRC panel overseeing Davis-Besse's rehabilitation, told FirstEnergy executives.

Poor management - the underlying cause of low worker morale and misleading records - allowed a large rust hole to fester unnoticed for years on the plant's reactor lid, Grobe said.

The entrenched problem "must be fixed before this plant [management] can recommend to the NRC that Davis-Besse be restarted."

Davis-Besse has been shut down since Feb. 16.

Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy's nuclear division, told the NRC panel that substantial management reforms are under way and that the plant's past willingness to put power production ahead of safety is changing.

"We're going to demonstrate our leadership courage by making hard decisions when we have to, to shut the plant down if we need to fix problems," Myers said.

The company's new mission statement, emphasizing safety, teamwork and accountability, was freshly framed and hanging on the walls of the Davis-Besse conference room where yesterday's meeting was held. "We're going to live those every day," Myers said.

Elsewhere in the plant, though, workers aren't ready yet to fully trust Myers and the other new members of the FirstEnergy management team.

The employee survey, done in August but not discussed in detail until yesterday, showed what Grobe called "sobering" findings about how those who run the reactor see their relationship with those who run the company. About a third of the 1,500 employees and contractors working at Davis-Besse responded to the survey.

Only 39 percent thought that their bosses put finding and fixing problems ahead of staying on schedule and budget.

Only 42 percent thought that the plant's program for identifying and fixing problems resolved those issues quickly and effectively.

Only 60 percent felt that management supported the ombudsman, an independent Davis-Besse official who handles complaints outside normal channels. Twenty-five employees felt the need to take their complaints directly to the NRC. "Based on industry experience, that's a fairly large number," said William Pearce, Davis-Besse vice president of oversight.

Twenty-six workers said they had faced harassment or intimidation for raising problems.

The survey "looks pretty nasty," Myers admitted. "We took it at a low point" in order to judge hoped-for progress later this fall, he said. "We expect to see improvement at restart."

The corrections include training all managers how to respond to worker concerns, having the ombudsman seek out complaints rather than waiting for employees to come to him, and hiring independent investigators to help get to the bottom of problems, the latter to avoid having bosses review issues that might be about themselves.

Davis-Besse workers "really want to move forward and get the job done," said Ottawa County Administrator Jere Witt, a member of the plant's Reactor Oversight Panel, an advisory group that interviewed 100 employees last week. "They're looking for strong management style and leadership. They feel some of the management changes are good, and the jury's still out on some."

While those kinds of management reforms are in FirstEnergy's hands, the NRC controls whether and when the sprawling nuclear plant will be allowed to resume generating electricity.

And that won't happen until the agency understands why managers accepted maintenance records showing that the reactor's lid was cleaned and free of corrosion when in reality it was crusted with an inch-thick layer of caustic crud from leaking coolant.

An NRC investigation will determine whether the shoddy record-keeping was criminally negligent. Even if it was not, reforms must be made to prevent recurrence, Grobe said.

He repeatedly questioned the company's argument that the flawed records didn't keep it from finding the rust hole.

"If you just looked at the written reports, the [lid] had been cleaned," Davis-Besse's Pearce said. Managers "had not gone and looked at the plant to come to an independent conclusion.

"Misinformation did lead them to come to the wrong conclusion," he said.

"However, there was plenty of other physical evidence had we just gone and looked at it."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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