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Published: Saturday, 9/13/2003

Nuclear groups keep close eye on Davis-Besse

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS - The nuclear industry now agrees Davis-Besse was an “enormous failure” and will keep an eye on FirstEnergy Corp. long after the plant resumes operation, a spokesman for the industry's Washington-based trade group said yesterday.

Alex Marion, engineering director of the Nuclear Energy Institute, told reporters at the national Society of Environmental Journalists conference here that Davis-Besse's badly corroded reactor head and associated problems have been a huge public relations blow for the industry. Many of the plant's woes could have been avoided with competent management, he said.

“The record is clear with what happened there. The information was available as to what they had to do, but their programs were not effective,” he said.

Now, while fulfilling its mission of touting nuclear power as a relatively clean and reliable way of helping America meet its rising energy needs, the energy institute is careful to portray Davis-Besse as an anomaly instead of a symptom of emerging wear-and-tear issues at aging nuclear plants.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Nils Diaz called Davis-Besse an “enormous failure” during a speech in Washington in April, his first major talk after being put in charge of the agency. “Quite frankly, we agree with the chairman,” Mr. Marion said yesterday.

Another panelist, Jack Strosnider, deputy director of the NRC's research office, responded by saying: “It's good to hear Alex and the industry acknowledge the problems at Davis-Besse.”

Several FirstEnergy officials, including Lew Myers, the nuclear subsidiary's chief operating officer, have stated on numerous occasions that the utility failed to pick up on symptoms of problems, such as rusty air filters in Davis-Besse's containment building.

In an interview with The Blade after the panel discussion, Mr. Marion said that lack of a questioning attitude, also cited by the NRC on numerous occasions, contributed greatly to the plant's state of affairs.

He said industry groups, such as the NEI and Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in Atlanta, are taking it upon themselves to guide FirstEnergy through Davis-Besse's restart and afterward to avoid another setback for the industry. “We're making sure they take what we think are appropriate measures to get that plant running again ... so it doesn't degenerate to the same situation,” Mr. Marion told The Blade. “We're all captives to one another in this industry.”

Mr. Marion was part of a four-member panel examining the future of nuclear power as many plants, such as Davis-Besse, reach the latter half of their 40-year operating licenses. Sixteen of the nation's 103 nuclear plants have received 20-year extensions. Twelve applications are pending. Davis-Besse, licensed to operate through 2017, is one of about 25 plants expected to file for 20-year extensions by 2006.

The reliability of materials used to build nuclear plants will be the focus of a global summit the NRC is hosting Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in the Washington suburb of Gaithersburg, Md. France, Japan, Germany, Sweden, and other nations are to have representatives there.

Mr. Strosnider said the agency has spent years researching the ability of plants to withstand long-term radiation, plus their extreme operating heat and pressure.

“The point is pretty simple: Nuclear plants are aging,” said David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer.

Mr. Marion defended nuclear energy production as an industry that is poised for a comeback, with plants reliable enough to provide energy well into the future.

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



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