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July 04, 2002


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Other | Article published Thursday, July 4, 2002
U.S. probes reason plant stayed open
Extent of industry pressure, politics under investigation


OAK HARBOR, Ohio - A federal probe is under way to determine whether politics or industry pressure was involved in the decision by senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials in December to let FirstEnergy Corp. keep operating the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant six more weeks until its current refueling shutdown.

While acknowledging that external influences are unavoidable to some degree, a spokesman for the NRC’s Office of Inspector General told The Blade that it is investigating the extent to which anything other than scientific, technical information was used as the basis for the NRC’s decision to let FirstEnergy keep operating Davis-Besse until Feb. 16.

"We want to know if the decision was based on a technical review - not on political or industry pressure," said George Mulley, NRC deputy assistant inspector general for investigations.

In December, some NRC staff members argued that the agency should have issued what would have been its first emergency shutdown order for a U.S. nuclear plant since 1987.

In addition, the NRC inspector general’s office is trying to determine why the agency admittedly was caught off-guard by the extent of corrosion revealed on top of the Davis-Besse reactor head during an inspection after the February refueling shutdown, Mr. Mulley said.

The corrosion - more extensive than anything ever found on top of a U.S. nuclear reactor head - was discovered only because company officials were told to look for hairline cracks in 69 reactor-head tubes known as control-rod drive-mechanism nozzles.

Minor cracks are not uncommon, but circular-shaped ones have the potential to weaken a plant’s structural integrity. Davis-Besse was one of several plants singled out in 2001 as having a propensity for developing such flaws, in part because it is similar in design to the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina, where that same type of crack had been seen for the first time.

One circumferential crack was eventually identified at Davis-Besse. But NRC officials have said their whole focus changed nationally after stumbling across the unprecedented corrosion.

The inspector general wants to know whether that discovery came as a surprise because of a regulatory breakdown within the NRC, Mr. Mulley said.

"After we got into this thing, it became apparent we have two separate issues," he said.

Meanwhile, interviews of 33 current and former Davis-Besse employees - mostly engineers, supervisors, managers, or directors - are under way by the NRC’s criminal investigative arm, the Office of Investigations. Jan Strasma, NRC spokesman, declined comment other than to confirm that it is one of several investigations in progress.

Other probes include a congressional inquiry that the House Energy and Commerce Committee has initiated at the request of U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor (R., Old Fort), plus less-formalized reviews that FirstEnergy and the NRC have been doing of their own procedures. One of those includes a report due out in early September by the NRC’s so-called "lessons learned" task force, made up of NRC officials outside the agency’s Midwest region.

Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, a national anti-nuclear group based in Washington, has compared the NRC’s handling of Davis-Besse to an incident involving a steam generator tube rupture at the Indian Point 2 nuclear plant in New York on Feb. 15, 2000.

That case prompted the NRC’s inspector general to conclude that the agency’s senior management failed to do adequate reviews that could have kept the problem at Indian Point 2 from occurring. One safety evaluation in particular was performed by a junior engineer with limited experience, according to the report.

Mr. Mulley said that the report "pointed out areas where things could have been handled better" at Indian Point. But he said it is too early to draw comparisons between that case and Davis-Besse.

The NRC inspector general’s report on Davis-Besse is expected this fall. "We’re pretty far into it," he said.

Meanwhile, the containment building of the abandoned Midland 2 nuclear plant project in northern Michigan has been cut open. FirstEnergy plans to remove a 27-year-old, unused reactor head from that former Consumers Power company facility within the next month and eventually place it atop the reactor vessel at Davis-Besse.

The dome-shaped, steel replacement lid is 17 feet wide and weighs 150 tons. It is to be trucked through the Toledo area en route to Davis-Besse, located about 25 miles east in Carroll Township near Oak Harbor, Ottawa County.

The utility has set Aug. 1 as its target date for delivery of the replacement head and is slightly ahead of schedule. Todd Schneider, FirstEnergy spokesman has declined to provide the likely shipping date or other details.

FirstEnergy is expected to spend $55 million to $75 million for the replacement head and its installation. That’s a little more than half of what the utility expects to put into Davis-Besse in hopes of restarting the plant by the end of the year.

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