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September 19, 2002


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Local Companies | Article published September 19, 2002
Operators quizzed on reactor oversight
Procedures revised, Besse officials assert


OAK HARBOR, Ohio - Federal regulators pressed Davis-Besse officials yesterday about what role inaccurate information on internal reports played in the failure of the nuclear plant’s management to notice a football-sized hole in the reactor head.

Jack Grobe, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight panel, said reports filed by plant employees indicated that the reactor head had been cleaned when it actually had a layer of boric acid on it.

"How can that not be a significant contributor" to the corrosion, he asked.

(For complete coverage of Davis-Besse go to

The panel was meeting with Davis-Besse officials to hear what the company was doing about problems with management and work standards that caused Davis-Besse operators to miss cracked nozzles and a six-inch hole in the reactor head. The latter left only a thin layer of stainless steel to keep the radioactive steam from leaking out of the reactor head and into the containment building, which is the last line of defense for the public.

Davis-Besse officials said they have installed a new management team, set up panels to review and revamp work procedures, and met with employees to go over work and safety procedures and hear their concerns.

Much of the discussion focused on what Davis-Besse considers a major problem that led to the degradation: Managers did not set high standards and were rarely in the plant. Workers, as a result, felt they could not report problems to them.

Mr. Grobe questioned how - in a plant where managers relied on employee reports instead of seeing conditions themselves - the corrosion would have been found if the reports said the head was cleaned of boric acid. The acid is an important element used to control the nuclear process, but it is highly corrosive and tends to eat away at carbon steel like that on the reactor head.

An audit of engineering operations after a refueling outage in 2000 was a glowing report, commending engineers’ efforts in cleaning the head. An inspection team looking into unidentified leaks in 2000 and 2001 was not concerned because inspectors talked to system operators who said the head had been cleaned. Four years earlier, a report stated the head was cleaned and leaks were fixed.

But in each of these cases, there was still a layer of boric acid on the head, eventually eating away six inches of carbon steel to create the cavity on the reactor head.

An arm of the NRC is investigating whether Davis-Besse managers intentionally put false information on the reports. This, along with other aspects of the review by the commission’s Office of Investigations, will help determine whether fines should be levied against Davis-Besse and whether a criminal investigation should proceed.

Steve Loehlein, manager of quality assessment at Davis-Besse, said workers reported the head was clean because the standards at the plant had dropped to the point where boric acid was acceptable.

"Cleaning the head to many people meant cleaned the best it could be done," he said. At one point, workers spent 280 hours trying to clean the head and there was still boric acid on it.

Still, Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company, said there were other signs that should have pointed managers to the problem, including air filters that were changed every other day because they were clogged with rust particles.

Mr. Myers said a main focus at Davis-Besse now is to have managers in the plant and involved in the process, including meeting with workers before a reactor head cleanup.

"It’s bad when the president of FENOC says, ‘I was in the containment building more than most of the managers last refueling outage,’" Mr. Myers said.

About a third of the Davis-Besse work force responded to a survey focusing largely on employee confidence. Forty percent said they thought management cared more about safety than costs, and less than half felt that corrective actions to fix problems were effective or investigated thoroughly.

Mr. Myers said the company is trying to gain the trust of workers by having weekly meetings with small employee groups and through a largely independent panel that has met with workers to gauge their concerns.

Mr. Grobe said Davis-Besse officials have a long way to go. "Your challenge is to get in the hearts and minds of every member of your organization," he said.

For complete coverage of Davis-Besse go to

More articles on this subject
Utility aims for Davis-Besse restart this year 09/18/2002
Power plant to install new reactor heads as precaution 09/14/2002
Tests on Davis-Besse reactor reveal more cracks, corrosion 09/11/2002
NRC to update residents on efforts at power plant 09/10/2002
Next question: Why weren’t the slip-ups at Davis-Besse discovered earlier? 09/01/2002

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