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NRC praises Davis-Besse for handling of new issue

10/17/02

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

Oak Harbor - The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission committee overseeing the Davis-Besse nuclear plant yesterday complimented the plant on its handling of a new challenge.

The company discovered possible leaks on the bottom of the reactor - an entirely new area of possible damage to the reactor. And it could have assumed that the boric acid and rust stains discovered on the reactor's base had merely run down the sides from the rusting lid.

That would have been the "easy answer," said Jack Grobe, head of the committee in charge of deciding when the plant is safe to restart and when FirstEnergy has made sufficient changes to the plant's management so it can be trusted to operate safely.

Instead, the company decided to alert the NRC, have the material chemically analyzed in an effort to determine its origin, begin thinking about further tests and, if necessary, repairs.

"I think your approach is very conservative, a very healthy approach," Grobe said at a meeting with Davis-Besse officials yesterday. If the bottom is leaking, the reactor's downtime will be extended beyond the current projection of early next year, and repair costs would grow beyond the nearly $400 million the company already estimates it will have spent. Lab analysis is expected within a week.

News of the development has hurt the company's stock. After an earnings downgrade by a leading New York investment analyst because of the development, investors drove down the price of FirstEnergy's stock $3.18 a share the last two days. The stock closed yesterday at $26.30.

Robert Schrauder, director of Davis-Besse's support services, said nuclear service company Framatome ANP is developing further testing to check for cracks in the tubes, called nozzles, that carry instrument wiring through the bottom. Cracks in similar nozzles in the lid led to boric acid leaks and a footprint-size rust hole in the reactor's lid. The reactor has been shut down since February.

If the bottom nozzles are cracked, similar reactors across the country could be affected in the same way. Grobe said no reactors have ever reported bottom cracks.

While complimenting the company for its actions on the issue, Grobe said the committee was still concerned about FirstEnergy's progress at management reform and the creation of a "safety conscious" work ethic at the plant.

Grobe said his committee is concerned that the company has not completed its in-depth analysis of what went wrong, let alone develop strategies to deal with it. He asked the company to develop a program by the committee's November monthly meeting.

William Pearce, a vice president for management oversight at Davis-Besse, said the tone of employee meetings has changed, and there is a new spirit of cooperation alignment between workers and managers. He said he plans another employee survey similar to one last summer that revealed deep pessimism among workers. The evidence the company has presented so far to show management has been reformed and employees have a new mindset is subjective, said committee member William Dean.

A number of Davis-Besse's critics, including Amy Ryder of the Cleveland office of Ohio Citizen Action, asked the panel whether it could revoke the plant's operating license if the management issue was not resolved. Grobe said the committee simply would not allow the reactor to be restarted.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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