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October 31, 2002

 



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Local Companies | Article published October 31, 2002
Expert wonders if rust unique to Davis-Besse
Incident dominates talk at global conference

By MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE SCIENCE EDITOR


WASHINGTON - The corrosion problem which shut down FirstEnergy Corp.ís Davis-Besse nuclear plant may be more than an isolated fluke, the chairman of the federal governmentís reactor safety committee said yesterday.

"Recent events have shaken my confidence," Dr. George E. Apostolakis said of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission system used to assure safety at the nationís 103 nuclear power plants.

"Iím really perplexed," he admitted at an international conference on nuclear safety research here. "I donít know how this whole system of checks could fail.

"Is what happened at Davis-Besse an outlier or an indication of a problem with the whole system? I donít know."

Dr. Apostolakis is professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairs the NRCís Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. The 11-member panel serves as the NRCís technical adviser on nuclear safety.

The Davis-Besse incident dominated sessions at the annual NRC-sponsored conference, which attracted hundreds of experts from more than a dozen countries.

"To indict the whole risk-analysis process because of Davis-Besse is lubricious," snapped Stephen D. Floyd, a senior director of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a pro-nuclear industry group based here.

He referred to the leak of corrosive water that went undetected at Davis-Besse for years. Workers finally discovered that it ate a pineapple-sized rust hole into the reactor pressure vessel head. Only a thin stainless steel liner prevented a potentially disastrous release of radioactive water from the reactor into the containment building, the plantís last line of defense for the public.

Mr. Floyd suggested that the lapses responsible for the rust hole were a rare exception in an industry that has grown safer and more reliable with the introduction of new safety approaches in the 1990s. He cited evidence that nuclear power has an excellent safety record, especially when compared to the toll from auto accidents, airplane crashes, and other health and safety hazards that society accepts.

Edward McGaffigan, Jr., one of five members of the NRCís governing board, defended the agencyís actions in overruling a staff recommendation calling for an immediate shutdown of Davis-Besse last December.

Some NRC staff concluded that the plant was unsafe, due to likely coolant leaks, and prepared a shutdown order. Senior staff members, however, vetoed it, allowing Davis-Besse to continue to operate until a refueling and maintenance shut down in mid-February. The rust hole was discovered in March.

Mr. McGaffigan said he endorses the senior staff decision as sound, based on the fact that the NRC was not aware at the time that the rust hole existed.

In remarks to the conference, David Lochbaum, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the veto was typical of NRCís inconsistent regulatory policies in dealing with nuclear plant operators.

Mr. McGaffigan and Mr. Lochbaum engaged in a lengthy debate as experts from Japan, Korea, Russia, and other countries looked on in wonderment.


More articles on this subject Ľ
Nuclear plants told to give up more data 10/31/2002
Kucinich vows to put nuclear plant to test 10/25/2002
Davis-Besse worker sues over suspension 10/23/2002
FirstEnergy pledges to pay down debts 10/22/2002
Citizensí appeal rejected by NRC 10/22/2002

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