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Federal regulators tell nuclear plant to toughen inspections

By JOHN SEEWER
The Associated Press
5/10/02 3:02 AM

OAK HARBOR, Ohio (AP) -- Federal nuclear regulators told operators of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant on Thursday to strengthen inspections at the plant, where an acid leak that burned a hole in the reactor cap went undetected.

FirstEnergy Corp., which owns the plant, said it already has begun the review process, including inspecting the building that contains the reactor.

Some corrosion and rust has been found in the building, but no leakage, plant manager Randy Fast said during a Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight panel meeting.

The panel that will monitor repairs at the plant met for the first time Thursday night and plans to meet at least once a month until the plant restarts, said John Grobe, director of reactor safety for the NRC.

The plant has been shut down for refueling since February and during that time inspectors found leaks had allowed boric acid to eat a hole in the 6-inch thick steel cap that covers the plant's reactor vessel.

Grobe told First Energy officials that their previous inspections were not good enough because they did not catch the problems at the plant.

First Energy already has toughened some of its inspection methods to require higher levels of review, Fast said.

The panel also heard from people who live around the plant. Some expressed frustration with First Energy and the NRC.

"These most recent events challenge the public's confidence," said Howard Whitcomb, an Oak Harbor attorney. "We're in the process of a regulatory meltdown."

Federal nuclear regulators indicated earlier this week that they would prefer a much costlier plan to fix the plant that could keep it shut down for another two years.

William Bateman, chief of the NRC's materials engineering research section, said FirstEnergy Corp. would be better off it gave up the idea of trying to repair the existing reactor head.

Instead, the company should explore buying a new reactor head, Bateman said.

FirstEnergy would rather repair the damage because it could allow the 25-year-old plant to reopen by September and save money. The Akron-based company also has talked about buying a never-used reactor head from a partially completed reactor in Midland, Mich.

NRC spokesman Jan Strasma said either plan may be acceptable but will have to go through a rigorous review.

Buying a new reactor could keep the plant shut down until 2004 and force the utility to buy high-priced energy on the open market.

The corrosion at the Davis-Besse plant was the most extensive ever found on top of a U.S. nuclear plant reactor and prompted federal inspectors to order an industrywide review of 68 other plants with similar designs and conditions. No other plants reported finding corrosion.

Federal officials have blamed FirstEnergy for overlooking warning signs of damage.

------

On the Net:

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov

FirstEnergy: http://www.firstenergycorp.com

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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