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'88 Warning Was Rejected at Damaged Nuclear Plant


WASHINGTON, 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 it.

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 feet thick.

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 consider them.

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 the containment.

"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 problems."

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 prescient.

"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.

Report Faults Fiscal Review of Nuclear Plants  (December 25, 2001)  $

Metro Business; Agency Revokes License  (December 25, 1998) 

At a Hearing, Nuclear Regulators Are Criticized on 2 Fronts  (July 18, 1998)  $

METRO NEWS BRIEFS: CONNECTICUT; Northeast Utilities Met Regulators Privately  (May 31, 1998) 

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