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August 16, 2002


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Other | Article published Friday, August 16, 2002
Safety slipped in 1990s, NRC told
FirstEnergy admits rules were ignored


CHICAGO - Standards at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant deteriorated in the 1990s to the point where plant operators were justifying potential safety problems instead of evaluating and fixing them, plant officials told a federal regulatory panel yesterday.

That attitude shift led operators to overlook a boric-acid corrosion problem that by the time it was discovered in March, had eaten a football-sized hole in the reactor vessel head, leaving only a 3/8 -inch-thick stainless steel lining to cover the reactor vessel.

At a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing yesterday, Davis-Besse Chief Operating Officer Lew Myers described an environment in the late 1980s and early '90s where plant workers found potential problems and took action to make them safe. In the mid to late 1990s, he said, the plant "was justifying why the thing was operable."

Officials of FirstEnergy, which owns and operates the plant 25 miles east of Toledo near Oak Harbor, told NRC officials that plant operators:

  • Were focused mainly on production because they felt the plant was fighting for its survival.

  • Assumed they were in compliance with federal regulations, and if in compliance, the plant must be safe. Officials later determined Davis-Besse was not in compliance with regulations when it applied to boric acid.

  • Did not follow their own boric-acid corrosion control plan, which called for Davis-Besse to not only clean boric acid when found, but to find the cause of leaks.

  • Were concerned about meeting "dose" goals - or how much radiation workers were exposed to - and that they might have kept workers from properly cleaning the reactor vessel head. Instead of working on finding ways to lower radiation levels, they became criteria for not completing a job.

  • "Selectively interpreted" information about leaking nozzles and how they could cause corrosion and therefore did not feel the nozzles would be a problem.

    Jim Dyer, an NRC official, said company leaders should be "humiliated" and called the situation at the plant "unacceptable." He noted that Mr. Myers said Davis-Besse staff took pride in their work.

    "It went beyond pride. It went into arrogance," he said, adding that these problems cannot continue.

    There were safety processes in place to catch and fix problems such as the acid on the reactor vessel head, said Steve Loehlein, head of Davis-Besse's root cause analysis team, and they were adequate to catch the problem. But while Davis-Besse staff filled out condition reports that would have shown a problem, they were not following through to determine whether there was a safety hazard.

    That was not the case in the early 1990s, FirstEnergy's Mr. Myers said. In 1991, for example, boric acid was found on the reactor head. Workers discovered that the leak was coming from flanges above the head, cleaned up the boric acid, and repaired the leaks.

    "It was done the way it should be done," he said. "Management didn't talk about it - they just cleaned it off."

    In the late 1990s, when boric acid was found on the reactor vessel head, it was not cleaned up and the source - cracked nozzles - was not found. A report in 1996 alerted plants to the possibility of cracking and leaking nozzles - a more serious problem because the boric acid would be corrosive - but a report by Davis-Besse's manufacturer said the problem was due to aging. Because older plants had not seen cracking, Davis-Besse operators assumed they did not have a problem either.

    "It went beyond thinking it was a low probability to, ‘It can't happen,'" said Jack Grobe, head of the NRC panel, calling it "complete denial."

    Bill Mugge, who is also a member of the plant's root cause analysis team, said: "We gave away the margin for safety, and that's unacceptable."

    Davis-Besse officials pointed to another problem where the plant overlooked potential safety problems. In 1998, when the plant was having problems with clogging containment air coolers, officials did what they could to keep the system operating instead of finding the source of the problem.

    Mr. Dyer of the NRC said both the plant and his federal agency failed in preventing this problem. He said the NRC spent a minimum amount of time at the plant in the 1990s because it needed its resources at several other plants in the region that were having problems. Davis-Besse was not considered a safety problem then.

    Mr. Dyer said he was concerned when Davis-Besse officials said they felt "compliance equaled safety." He said plants will operate safely if they comply with federal regulations, but what Davis-Besse officials considered compliance was anticipating what NRC would inspect and making sure those areas were in compliance.

    "Compliance just meant it was operable," Mr Loehlein said.

    Condition reports were filled out when workers found problems at Davis-Besse, but they were not adequately followed up. Some were categorized as too low a safety risk so the assessments in place at Davis-Besse would not have picked up on them, Mr. Loehlein said.

    In 2000, for example, a condition report was filed about boric acid flowing out of "weep holes" used to look in at the reactor head. But no follow-up was done to see if there was a safety problem. Also in 2000, a report filed by the quality assurance office, charged with overseeing operations, stated that the reactor head had been cleaned of boric acid, when it hadn't.

    "It's obvious the quality assurance person never went down there," Mr. Myers said.

    Mr. Myers said another potential problem is that monetary bonuses for senior level staff were tied more to production than safety, though Davis-Besse officials said there was no evidence it had any impact on this case. Monetary rewards for lower level employees are tied more to safety, Mr. Myers said.

    In the mid-1990s, management focus at the plant shifted to production concerns, Davis-Besse officials said.

    The plant was struggling.

    "It is believed that it was fighting for its survival," Mr. Loehlein said, adding that cost was a "major concern." Also, personnel worked with the philosophy that unless an issue was proven to be serious, it was assumed it wasn't. The only way to get a high priority on a condition report, according to Davis-Besse officials, was to prove the problem was serious.

    Davis-Besse has already made major changes in senior management. Yesterday, Mr. Myers laid out several other plans to improve the plant, including:

  • Strengthening the corrective action review board that looks into possible safety problems.

  • Treat repeat conditions at the plant as "significant conditions adverse to quality," which will get more attention.

  • Establish a periodic system walk-down program, where systems are thoroughly inspected.

  • Implement management observation program with weekly schedules.

  • Provide training to workers on the need to remove boric acid and inspect for signs of boric acid.

    Davis-Besse and the NRC will meet again at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Oak Harbor High School to discuss the progress of restarting the plant. A meeting for the NRC to discuss the issues with the public follows at 7 p.m. The possibility of violations, including inaccurate information on reports, will be discussed Tuesday as well. If the violations are considered willful, civil fines and - if warranted - possible criminal charges, could be pursued. Mr. Dyer said that is rare.

    More articles on this subject
    Workers start to slice into Davis-Besse’s shell 08/14/2002
    NRC finds 11 violations at Davis-Besse 08/13/2002
    FirstEnergy scrubs deal to sell Bay Shore plant 08/09/2002
    Davis-Besse plant manager replaced without comment after 7 months on job 08/08/2002
    NRC questions own decision on Davis-Besse shutdown 08/06/2002

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