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Workers unlikely to suffer from radiation, study says

10/17/02

John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

Oak Harbor - Workers who were sent into highly radioactive steam generators at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant last spring without respirators probably won't suffer any long-term health consequences from radioactive particles they ingested, a federal review has concluded.

The radioactive isotopes also dropped from the shoes and clothing of the workers in four states as they traveled from job to job.

But that is unlikely to cause any adverse health effects.

But plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. could face fines for sloppy operation that violated at least three NRC rules.

A special inspection team from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission detailed its preliminary findings yesterday to Davis-Besse officials in a public meeting at the troubled Toledo-area plant. Shut down with a large rust hole in the reactor lid because of years of poor maintenance and management, Davis-Besse will not be permitted to restart until the NRC is convinced it is safe.

The facts of the incident and the agency's preliminary findings are:

In March, seven employees of an outside contractor were told by the company it was safe to do maintenance on the huge steam generators, which sit next to the reactor in the containment building. Superheated coolant that has touched the radioactive core of the reactor flows through the generators when the reactor is operating.

The Davis-Besse technicians responsible for the safety of the men sampled the inside surfaces of the steam generators for radiation but failed to sample the air inside the steam generators, as required by regulation. Had they done that, they would have found that the airborne radiation was a thousand times higher than normal. Only one of the seven workers escaped contamination.

Radioactive particles - from leaks in the reactor's fuel rods during the previous two years of operation - had contaminated the reactor coolant and everything it touched, including the insides of the generators.

The company knew this because it has to regularly analyze the coolant and report levels of "transuranics" to the NRC, an NRC official said.

Transuranics are isotopes such as plutonium created by the nuclear reaction inside the fuel rods. If they show up in the coolant, it is evidence of cracked fuel rods. The levels at Davis-Besse, though still within NRC regulations, were much higher than in previous years. But the technicians ignored those facts.

Levels of deeply penetrating radiation had spiked in the plant about nine hours before the men entered the generators. The spike had been created by the way the plant had been shut down. Standard practice in such cases is to stop work and reassess safety conditions. The health technicians in charge of the workers at the steam generators did not.

The company sent the men into the generators wearing protective clothing but not respirators. Special team leader Thomas Kozak of the NRC said the company's thinking was that the bulky respirators would have slowed down the work in the cramped steam generator, exposing the men to additional deeply penetrating radiation and increasing their immediate radiation dose.

But that thinking ignored the threat from the transuranics, which got through the special suits on six of the men.

After completing the work, their bodies set off radiation monitors even after seven showers, said Kozak. But they were allowed to leave the plant because the Davis-Besse technicians concluded they had inhaled or ingested the particles. The heavy isotopes, however, were on their shoes and in their underclothes.

Two of the six had in fact swallowed - or more likely inhaled - the material. Just how much is the question. Because the particles emit relatively weak radiation, their rays do not escape the body but instead damage internal organs.

The NRC has ordered laboratory analysis of the two workers' urine and feces three times so far and could require additional tests, said Kozak, if the third test is inconclusive. Results could be available in two to three weeks, he said.

Neither of the affected men, employees of nuclear service company Framatome ANP, are ill, said Kozak, but neither is permitted to work until the issue is resolved.

As for the particles that the workers carried out of the plant on their clothing, there is little danger to the public, Kozak said because the particles emit a kind of radiation that is stopped by clothing or skin. FirstEnergy inspection teams that retraced the workers' steps recovered 16 of the tiny particles in motel rooms, homes and cars.

"We did not handle the issue as well as we could have," acknowledged Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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