|Other | Article published
Friday, August 16, 2002|
Safety slipped in
1990s, NRC told
rules were ignored
By KELLY LECKER
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."
FirstEnergy, which owns and operates the plant 25 miles east of
Toledo near Oak Harbor, told NRC officials that plant
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
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
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
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
Bill Mugge, who is also a member of the plant's root
cause analysis team, said: "We gave away the margin for safety, and
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
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
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 just meant it was operable," Mr
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
"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
In the mid-1990s, management focus at the plant shifted
to production concerns, Davis-Besse officials said.
"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
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
Implement management observation program with weekly
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
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