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August 21, 2002


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Local Companies | Article published August 21, 2002
Retaliation fears cited at Davis-Besse nuclear plant
Staff reluctant to report problems, NRC says
The Davis-Besse nuclear power has been shut down since February.
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OAK HARBOR, Ohio - Employees of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant do not feel like they can report operating problems for fear of retaliation and the ''boomerang effect,'' meaning the work would be turned back on them, a federal regulator said yesterday.

Jack Grobe, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight panel investigating whether Davis-Besse violated federal safety rules, cited a report filed earlier this month that criticized Davis-Besse's efforts to improve accountability at the plant. The facility, located about 25 miles east of Toledo, has been shut down since February for refueling and to deal with the discovery that boric acid leaks had corroded the carbon steel cap on the reactor vessel until only a 3/8 -inch layer of stainless steel remained.

''It's fairly clear that those [accountability] activities are not yet bearing fruit,'' Mr. Grobe said. ''The fact that boric acid is corrosive is not a surprise to anyone ... It wasn't the cracking or the boric acid. It was the lack of safety focus of your staff.''

The NRC yesterday outlined proposed safety violations against Davis-Besse because of the corroded reactor head, including the fact that the plant did not adequately train its inspectors to look for boric acid and did not follow its own corrosion response plan.

Among the proposed violations, the NRC said Davis-Besse had inaccurate information on reports, including work orders, corrective action documents, and responses to a NRC safety bulletin.

  • Inaccurate information on reports, including work orders, corrective action documents, and responses to NRC safety bulletins.

  • Safety violations because of the corroded reactor head, including the fact that the plant did not adequately train its inspectors to look for boric acid and did not follow its own corrosion response plan.
  • Christine Lipa, head of the reactor oversight program in the NRC's Chicago office, said the commission did not look into whether the plant intended to falsify information, but did verify that information was inaccurate.

    The NRC said inspectors at Davis-Besse had inadequate training and certification. According to the training program standards, inspectors required at least six hours of training and 60 hours of practical experience; Davis-Besse inspectors did not have that, said Mel Holmberg, NRC's lead inspector for the plant.

    Mr. Holmberg said he found boric acid corrosion in other parts of the plant that Davis-Besse inspectors did not find. This includes corrosion in the gap between the floor and the containment liner and in the ventilation fans in the service structure, a stovepipe-like fixture above the reactor vessel head.

    The plant also did not have ''acceptance criteria,'' or a list of standards to be met, for inspection reports.

    ''There was no administrative requirement to even follow the plan,'' Mr. Holmberg said.
    Other violations proposed by the NRC include:

  • Failure to follow safety specifications that require the plant to have no boundary leaks. Boric acid leaked from cracked control rod nozzles onto the reactor vessel head.

  • Missing numerous opportunities to identify the boric acid corrosion and the cracked and leaking control rod nozzles, including deferring modifications that would have let workers see and have access to the reactor vessel head. Plant personnel did not recognize the problem even though they changed air filters every other day instead of monthly because of clogging from rust particles caused by the corrosion, or when employees found plugging of the radiation monitors, the NRC said.

  • Failure to follow the utility's own plan to find and clean up boric acid, and having a plan that focuses only on bolted connections, not on the reactor head. Also, the procedures did not require the plant to document actions to correct the problems.

    The proposed violations are considered ''unresolved items,'' because the NRC management needs to review the issues and make a risk assessment before they decide whether to issue any formal violations or impose fines.

    FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company, the parent company of Davis-Besse, yesterday reiterated its statements from last week that plant officials failed to follow procedures that would have led them to find the leaking acid and the corrosion.

    In its formal "root cause" report last week, the company stated that "there was less than an adequate nuclear safety focus" by management beginning in the 1990s. "There was a focus on production, established by management, combined with taking minimum actions to meet regulatory requirements, that resulted in the acceptance of degraded conditions."

    The company said yesterday it was surveying Davis-Besse staff, as it did in 1999 and 2000, to gauge their attitudes and their commitment to safety.

    Davis-Besse is trying to change that attitude through employee meetings where workers can confidentially report problems and through better oversight by managers, said Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company.

    ''I was just technically embarrassed. We were complacent in a lot of areas,'' he said.

    Mr. Myers said company managers are meeting with each work division at Davis-Besse and explaining to them how the actions of that division affected the corrosion problem, and how they could have prevented it. Each employee will be given a performance test, he said.

    A new senior management team is in place at Davis-Besse, and they are better observing what is happening at the plant, Mr. Myers said.

    Davis-Besse said it has more than 800 corrective actions that need to be taken care of before the plant is restarted, and workers are behind schedule in program reviews of the plant. Still, officials said the plant is expected to re|start by the end of the year.

    Workers are reinspecting the plant, filing condition reports on any problems, and working to put in the new reactor vessel head that FirstEnergy bought from an unused plant in Midland, Mich. Davis-Besse is cutting a hole in the side of the containment building to swap the reactor heads. FirstEnergy expects to spend as much as $75 million on the repairs.

    John Johnson, who came yesterday from NRC national headquarters, said Davis-Besse should give the agency a schedule of inspections to get the plant restarted.

    ''You've got a lot of work to do. I don't think you need me to tell you that,'' Mr. Johnson said. "You've got to get the trust back of your employees.''

    The NRC has issued a preliminary decision rejecting a request by the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than a dozen other environmental groups from Ohio and elsewhere who want an independent reviewer to assess the problems at Davis-Besse. The groups maintain that the NRC failed to properly oversee the plant to begin with, contributing to the current problems.

    The NRC said in a statement that establishment of an additional oversight program would represent an "unnecessary regulatory burden."

    About 30 members of the Citizens Campaign to Close Davis-Besse, a Toledo area environmental group seeking an independent review of the plant's problems, picketed outside Oak Harbor High School before the start of a second public hearing last night.

    Once inside, members of the group cheered on some residents who told the NRC that the agency should shut the plant down. The protesters later disrupted the meeting for several minutes as they left, loudly chanting "Two, four, six, eight, the NRC can't regulate."

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