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Published: 4/19/2003

Davis-Besse snafu leaves an impression

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON - A major government symposium ended yesterday with little doubt Davis-Besse's problems will have a lasting impact on the nuclear industry.

The Ottawa County nuclear plant was by far the most talked-about during the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's 15th annual Regulatory Information Conference, a three-day event that drew 1,200 scientists, government officials, and industry lobbyists from 15 countries.

A common theme was how the nuclear industry was embarrassed by FirstEnergy Corp.'s complacency and how the NRC dealt its own credibility a blow by failing to provide diligent oversight.

Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy's nuclear subsidiary, noted that discussions went far beyond technical aspects of the acid-induced corrosion that nearly burned a hole through Davis-Besse's reactor head.

The plant traverses a variety of issues, from the workforce's safety culture to the company's willingness to be forthcoming with information, he said.

The latter concern was in regard to a warning issued yesterday by Jim Dyer, the NRC's Midwest regional administrator. A Michigan utility official asked Mr. Dyer why the NRC's Midwest office has issued twice as many violations as any other recently for incomplete or inaccurate information.

“We do have a sensitivity, post-Davis-Besse, to complete and accurate information. We do need to get that trust. We're going to validate and verify the information we get,” Mr. Dyer said.

Among other things, NRC investigators have been checking out allegations about the presence of 1998 and 2000 photos that depicted rust stains on Davis-Besse's reactor head - each long before FirstEnergy publicly acknowledged the problem March 6, 2002.

The corrosion is the worst of its kind in U.S. nuclear history, leaving a mere 0.2-inch of steel to hold back the reactor's enormous pressure of 2,200 pounds per square inch.

Though FirstEnergy has taken responsibility, the NRC has acknowledged more in recent months how Davis-Besse has helped expose its weaknesses as a regulator.

“This has been a significantly emotional event for the NRC, as well as the industry,” Mr. Dyer said.

Mr. Myers told The Blade he believes FirstEnergy spent too much time trying to “put our best foot forward” when the incident was revealed. “We're [darn] sure not doing that today,” he said.

“My challenge is to put an organization into place that is sustainable,” Mr. Myers said. “We've got to do our best to bury the past.”

NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield, a member of the agency's governing board, told a packed ballroom Thursday that Davis-Besse has prompted the NRC and nuclear industry to do “some significant soul-searching to understand how this incident could have occurred.”

Agency officials at the regional and national level let problems slip by because their attention was diverted by issues elsewhere.

“These were missed opportunities that have left the citizens of Ohio and members of Congress questioning the NRC's oversight activities and capabilities,” he said.

The unprecedented reactor-head problem not only caught the NRC off guard, but was worsened by the fact the agency took almost a year documenting its justification for letting Davis-Besse continue operating until Feb. 16, 2002 - six weeks longer than some staff members had wanted.

That understandably led to accusations that the NRC “had caved in to the very industry it was responsible for regulating,” Mr. Merrifield said.

“This left the impression that economics had won out over safety. Nothing could be further from the truth, and that is certainly not the message that should be sent to the American people,” he said.

One of the more hands-on changes at Davis-Besse will be the addition of a third resident inspector. Those are NRC officials assigned to specific nuclear plants to monitor day-to-day activities.

Most plants have two. The NRC had only one at Davis-Besse for several months before the plant was shut down, in part, because the plant was seen as a solid performer, said Darrell Roberts, technical assistant to the NRC's nuclear reactor regulation director.

The NRC is looking into why that particular resident inspector was left alone for an extended time, as well as the circumstances that led to him being hired by FirstEnergy, Mr. Roberts said.

Jere Witt, Ottawa County administrator, said the county commissioners want the NRC to adopt a stronger nationwide policy in regard to utilities that hire NRC resident inspectors to help avoid the appearance of impropriety.

NRC policy requires only that resident inspectors be reassigned during the time they are negotiating for employment with a plant they're regulating, Mr. Roberts said.

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse.



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