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October 10, 2002


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Local Companies | Article published October 10, 2002
NRC officials admit own failure with Davis-Besse plant
Agency cites distraction, poor inspection policies

The task force was convened in response to the unprecedented rust problem at Davis-Besse.
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OAK HARBOR, Ohio - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledged yesterday that it failed to properly inspect FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse nuclear plant and that contributed to the worst reactor-head corrosion ever in the United States.

In a 96-page report, a panel of NRC officials called the "Lessons Learned Task Force" documented how the government agency and the nuclear industry knew for at least a decade that many of the nation's nuclear plants have had the potential for the same type of problem found at Davis-Besse on March 5.

Yet the regulatory commission has done little to address those concerns beyond issuing nationwide warning letters, in part because the agency erroneously accepted the nuclear industry's argument that any corrosion induced by tiny reactor-head nozzle leaks would be discovered before they ate through the reactor head.

"The NRC accepted industry positions regarding the nature and significance of VHP [vessel-head penetration] nozzle cracking without having independently verified a number of key assumptions, including the implementation effectiveness of boric acid corrosion control programs and enhanced visual inspections of RPV [reactor-pressure vessel] heads," the report said.

  • A Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel documented how the NRC and the nuclear industry knew that many of the nation's nuclear plants have the potential for the same type of reactor-head corrosion found at Davis-Besse and acknowledged that it failed to properly inspect the nuclear plant.

  • Managers of the NRC's Midwest regional office allowed themselves to become too distracted by activities at other plants to diagnose Davis-Besse's far-reaching problem.

  • The agency erroneously accepted the nuclear industry's argument that any corrosion induced by tiny reactor-head nozzle leaks would be discovered
    before they ate through the
    reactor head.
  • Managers of the commission's Midwest regional office in Lisle, Ill., where Davis-Besse inspectors report, allowed themselves to become too distracted by activities at other plants to diagnose Davis-Besse's problem, the report said.

    "If focused inspections had been performed, then the NRC may have ultimately discovered the VHP nozzle leaks and RPV head degradation," it said.

    The task force - composed of commission officials from outside the Midwest - was convened in response to the unprecedented rust problem at Davis-Besse, where boric acid from the reactor leaked through cracked nozzles for years without being fixed.

    The acid ate a footprint-shaped cavity through one section of six-inch-thick carbon steel, leaving nothing but a thin liner of stainless steel which had started to crack and bulge.

    The state of disrepair put Northwest Ohio fractions of an inch away from having pressurized radioactive steam inside the reactor burst through the head and into the reactor containment building - the plant's last line of protection for the public. High-ranking regulatory commission officials have described the Davis-Besse problem as the nation's most chilling scenario with a nuclear plant since the Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979.

    Task force recommendations have been forwarded to the NRC headquarters for review by a senior management team. By late November, that review team is expected to decide which recommendations should be forwarded to the commission's executive director of operations for approval.

    FirstEnergy spokesman Richard Wilkins had little to say about the report, noting that he had expected the commission to do a tough self-assessment.

    "Based on what I have seen, they've kept their word on that," he said.

    Alex Marion, director of engineering for the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's powerful lobbying group, told The Blade yesterday that the problems identified by the task force "were probably on the mark."

    A former NRC commissioner, Victor Glinksy, last spring accused the energy institute of being notably silent on the problems at Davis-Besse, located 25 miles east of Toledo.

    Mr. Marion pointed out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had concluded last spring that no other nuclear plants likely have the degree of reactor-head corrosion as Davis-Besse, based on inspection records and responses to a detailed government survey. The NEI came up with similar results, based on a less formal query of its own.

    Mr. Marion said he remains convinced the problems at Davis-Besse are an anomaly and that inspections and camera monitoring at other plants is sufficient.

    "We're confident other utilities are doing [a combination of inspections] in an effective manner," he said.

    Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a national activist group, said he was dismayed the task force did not focus more attention on a decision last fall in which Samuel J. Collins, NRC director of nuclear reactor regulation, overruled a staff recommendation to shut down Davis-Besse by Dec. 31.

    NRC staffers suspected that Davis-Besse's cracked reactor-head nozzles might be evolving into a more significant problem, but their shutdown recommendation was nixed by Mr. Collins without explanation. Instead - after hearing a FirstEnergy executive privately explain the extensive financial hardship the company would incur from such an order - Mr. Collins allowed Davis-Besse to continue operating until Feb. 16, according to internal NRC memos obtained by the activist group.

    Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials have said on behalf of Mr. Collins that the financial hardship did not factor into the decision to let Davis-Besse keep operating until shutting down for refueling on Feb. 16.

    "I think that's the prime lesson this agency needs to learn - how the senior management overrules its staff determinations," Mr. Gunter said.

    David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the anti-nuclear Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed. However, Mr. Lochbaum said he was impressed by the breadth of the task force's report.

    "It's pretty thorough. It covers a lot of ground," he said.

    For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse.

    More articles on this subject
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    Feds test Davis-Besse contractors 10/02/2002

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