ASHINGTON, Sept. 29 — The
discovery in February that a reactor vessel in a nuclear power
plant had corroded to the brink of rupturing may have shocked
the plant's operators and federal safety regulators, but years
ago, Howard C. Whitcomb saw it coming, or something like
Mr. Whitcomb, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission
inspector who was hired by the owners of the Davis-Besse
reactor, near Toledo, Ohio, to write a report on what was
wrong with maintenance there, concluded in 1988 that
management so disdained its craft workers that it had lost
touch with the condition of the plant.
Top executives responded swiftly and decisively, he said:
They ordered him to change his report. He quit instead.
Now, the owners are saying they need to get in better touch
with their employees, who according to company surveys are
still reluctant to raise safety concerns. In a meeting with
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-September, company
officials explained that they were meeting with all 800 plant
employees in small groups with a facilitator to improve
communication. The plant, built for Toledo Edison, is now run by First Energy
Nuclear Operating Company, after a merger.
The simple problem at Davis-Besse, a 24-year-old reactor,
was that water was leaking from two nozzles on top of the
vessel. The water contained boron, a chemical used to regulate
the nuclear reaction, and the boron accumulated in a hidden
spot and ate away about 70 pounds of steel.
The commission staff has said that the company's reports on
the condition of the vessel head were misleading.
Now the reactor head must be replaced, a task that has
required cutting a big hole through a containment dome several
But there are broader questions. Why did the company delay
making a change to the reactor head that would have made
inspection possible? Why did not the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission, which wanted all plants of Davis-Besse's type to
inspect for the problem, push for earlier action?
As is common after severe problems at a reactor, the
commission has been examining the structure of management and
what it calls the plant's culture, meaning the attitudes of
the people who work there, the willingness of operators to
raise safety questions and management's willingness to
While the corrosion at the vessel head was not obvious, the
boron had spread elsewhere, and the commission is particularly
interested in why no one did anything about corrosion on a
ventilation duct that was in plain sight of workers entering
"People generally accepted that condition," said Todd M.
Schneider, a spokesman for First Energy. Since the discovery
of the corrosion in the vessel head, management has worked to
change attitudes so "those conditions are no longer
acceptable," Mr. Schneider said.
In his 1988 report, Mr. Whitcomb mentioned the culture
problems that are now recognized.
"Many craft personnel hold strong negative perceptions of
engineering and management personnel," he wrote. "In general,
the labor forces feel that management exhibits a general lack
of concern or respect for their abilities, efforts or
Mr. Whitcomb was hardly an industry rebel. A veteran of the
nuclear Navy, he was a resident inspector for the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission at the H.B. Robinson reactor in South
Carolina, and then went to a plant under construction in Ohio
before being hired by Toledo Edison. After he gave two weeks'
notice at Davis-Besse, he went to work at the Fermi reactor,
near Detroit. Now he is a lawyer in general practice in Oak
Harbor, Ohio, the location of the Davis-Besse reactor.
In a report on June 20, 1988, to the company's vice
president for nuclear power and the plant manager, he said
that closing to refuel took too long; that preventive
maintenance was slow and not fully effective because managers
did not pay enough attention to the workers' needs; and that
the workers were embittered.
"Maintenance has traditionally been regarded in a
subservient role at Davis-Besse," Mr. Whitcomb wrote. To be
successful, management must recognize "the contribution that
craft personnel may provide in the development of
plant-specific maintenance actions." Managers must take a more
serious attitude toward maintenance, he wrote.
That finding in the report, a copy of which was provided to
The New York Times by Ohio Citizen Action, a nonprofit group
that has raised many safety questions about the reactor, seems
"If they followed the advice of 20 years ago, we wouldn't
be here now," said Amy K. Ryder, the group's program director
in the Cleveland area.
In an interview, Mr. Whitcomb said, "They just didn't want
to hear it."
Mr. Schneider, the spokesman for First Energy, said that
the two executives to whom Mr. Whitcomb had made his report 14
years ago were no longer with the company. The report "was not
up to our requirements," he said, but he would not confirm
that Mr. Whitcomb had been told to rewrite it. Mr. Whitcomb
left Toledo Edison voluntarily, he said.
The company says it hopes to restart the plant this year.
Work is progressing well on the head replacement, Mr.
Schneider said. First Energy bought the head of a similar
reactor in Michigan on which construction has been abandoned.
It is still working on the culture, he said.