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Regulators question FirstEnergy staffing

ROCKVILLE, Md. - Officials of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday expressed concern that FirstEnergy's transfer of key staff from its other nuclear plants to aid the troubled Davis-Besse plant could jeopardize safety at the other facilities.

Since the discovery of a football-sized rust hole in Davis-Besse's reactor vessel head last March, FirstEnergy's nuclear operating subsidiary has purged top management at the plant and beefed up staff.

Two other nuclear facilities FirstEnergy operates - the Perry nuclear plant near Painesville, Ohio, and the Beaver Valley I and II plants at Shippingport in western Pennsylvania - have been major sources of Davis-Besse's new talent, including veteran reactor operators.

FirstEnergy also has focused more and more resources on its efforts to get Davis-Besse back into operation. The utility is hoping to get NRC permission to resume generating electricity at the plant 25 miles east of Toledo by the end of the first quarter of 2003.

“In three years are we going to worry about Perry?” NRC Commissioner Greta Discus asked her colleagues on the NRC's five-member governing board during a meeting at the agency's headquarters here.

“We're worried now,” replied John Grobe, who chairs a special NRC panel that is monitoring Davis-Besse and its corrective actions.

“That's one of the areas I really worry about,” added Jim Dyer, who is chief of the NRC regional headquarters in Chicago, which oversees the Davis-Besse and Perry plants.

Mr. Dyer described his personal visit to the Perry facility, which has provided a number of new staff for Davis-Besse, for a first-hand check on the staffing situation.

FirstEnergy does seem to have a “game plan” for coping with the personnel drain, he said.

Asked later in the meeting to specifically define what they “worry” about, Mr. Dyer and Mr. Grobe said they are worried in the sense of feeling a need now to keep a close eye on operations at Perry and Beaver Valley.

Lew Myers, FirstEnergy's chief operating officer, said the transfer of personnel to Davis-Besse was part of an orderly process that would not affect safe operations at other facilities.

Mr. Dyer told the commission that his NRC regional office is experiencing staff shortages and difficulty in recruiting new staff, which make its job of inspecting and regulating nuclear power plants more difficult.

Four other FirstEnergy executives also briefed the NRC commissioners, describing a wide range of personnel, equipment, and other changes at Davis-Besse.

“We're making solid progress,” said H. Peter Berg, chairman and chief executive officer of FirstEnergy Corp. “Let me stress that we will only return the plant to service when we are convinced that it will operate safely and reliably.”

The commission gave no clue about a possible date for allowing a restart.

Mr. Grobe agreed that FirstEnergy is making good progress in identifying and correcting problems at the plant, but indicated that much additional work remained.

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