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Davis-Besse staff questions bosses' safety commitment

08/21/02

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

Oak Harbor

- Despite a summer's worth of repairs, inspections and management changes at the crippled Davis-Besse nuclear plant, the utility's own survey shows its employees are not yet ready to believe that things are turning around.

They also aren't sure that their new bosses really want to hear about lingering problems and safety concerns.

FirstEnergy Corp. officials have to regain that trust for the plant to reopen and operate safely, the company's own management and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed at a lengthy plant progress meeting yesterday.

A survey in early 1999 measuring nuclear workers' comfort with notifying their bosses of possible safety issues without fear of reprisal showed the FirstEnergy's nuclear division had a problem.

Results improved somewhat in a follow-up study done this January, just a few weeks before inspectors found a rust hole in the reactor's lid.

Now that FirstEnergy has made wholesale management changes and is embarking on a $145 million-plus series of repairs at the plant 87 miles west of Cleveland, the new bosses wanted to know if anything had changed morale-wise.

What they found was that confidence had sunk to the 1999 level. "I think it means we have to put together a proactive plan to solicit issues from employees and work on the communications and trust issues," said Bill Pearce, the nuclear division's vice president of oversight.

Employees need to believe that "we value the information and will act on it without hesitation," Pearce said.

FirstEnergy Nuclear's Chief Operating Officer Lew Myers noted the difficulty of confronting your managers and the risks that speaking up may increase your workload.

One of the NRC's senior officials said he saw those employee concerns firsthand in the last few days during a visit and chats with workers.

"You've got a lot of work to do," said Jon Johnson, deputy director of the agency's office of nuclear reactor regulation, which will play a role in deciding when the reactor is allowed to restart. "What I think you've got to do is get the trust back from your employees.

"You have a skilled staff. You need to provide them with your expectations and values. My question is, what are your values?" Johnson said. "I couldn't tell from visiting the plant."

"Our values are safety, communication, teamwork, customer focus," Myers said. "That's the [FirstEnergy] way."

The 1,600 plant workers and contractors who are swarming to inspect and repair the reactor and its surrounding equipment and containment building have made substantial progress, FirstEnergy officials told the special NRC panel overseeing the task. But the work has not been without setbacks.

An NRC check found problems with the qualifications of newly trained Davis-Besse inspectors and the procedures they were using to look for equipment damage - damage caused by corrosive airborne acid that had leaked for years through cracks in the reactor's lid. The boric acid normally is an ingredient in the reactor's coolant.

The inspection program flaws, which constituted two violations of NRC regulations, prompted FirstEnergy to halt the checks, hire 20 more-experienced contractors to redo the inspections, and retrain its own workers to a higher standard.

Those inspections and numerous ongoing "walkdowns" to eyeball and document the condition of reactor equipment found that the overall condition of the plant was generally good.

But there were more signs of the sloppy attitudes toward safety and maintenance that had allowed the rust hole to grow unchecked and undetected for at least six years.

Workers recovered debris that had accumulated on the reactor building's floor and behind equipment - nails, screws, duct tape and wire ties.

"We were not pleased," said FirstEnergy Nuclear's engineering director, Jim Powers.

The debris potentially could clog intakes for the reactor's emergency cooling system sump pumps. "This is an example of cleaning up these areas and establishing higher standards," Powers said.

Painters putting a new coat on the reactor building's steel liner had to stop work in July when the plant's newly aggressive quality assurance teams discovered that the extra layer of paint would have affected the containment building's ability to withstand increased heat from a reactor accident. The company decided only to spot-paint areas that were peeling.

The 3,500 hours of inspections found some good news: Despite a small gap between the containment building's concrete floor and its steel walls, no water had seeped inside.

And although groundwater had leaked through the thick concrete outer wall and pooled against the liner, tests showed the liquid did not contain steel-devouring microbes, the company said.

The NRC has not yet seen results of the testing, said senior metallurgist Mel Holmberg.

It remains to be seen whether the massive amount of work to get the plant and its management rehabilitated to the NRC's satisfaction gets done by FirstEnergy's year-end timetable.

"It's too early to project," said NRC oversight panel Vice Chairman Bill Dean. The company hasn't indicated when it expects to be done with its work, he said, and the NRC has yet to schedule its own inspections of the plant.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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