OAK HARBOR, Ohio - FirstEnergy Corp. has set Nov. 24 as the date it will begin seeking authorization to restart Davis-Besse, though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continued to express concern about the company s ability to operate the nuclear plant.
NRC officials again refused to be pinned to a time frame but signaled that the agency s decision easily could be pushed into 2004.
Davis-Besse has been idle since Feb. 16, 2002, because of equipment, management, and design issues that have arisen following the discovery of a near-hole in its reactor head three weeks after the shutdown.
Agency officials opened yesterday s pair of monthly oversight panel meetings at Oak Harbor High School by expressing new concerns about the company s ability to diagnose its own problems.
A 10-member NRC inspection team that spent five weeks at Davis-Besse has cited FirstEnergy for 25 violations of the plant s corrective action program, which nuclear companies use to identify equipment and operational weaknesses.
The violations had little safety significance, but the number and type were “somewhat disturbing,” Jack Grobe, the NRC s oversight panel chairman, said.
The results of that inspection were “not consistent with the requirements, not consistent with what we would expect for restart, and not consistent with what we would expect from a well-operated plant,” he said.
The plant was at near-normal pressure and temperature for more than a week, in a non-nuclear mode. Operators rushed the cool-down process so much that computers, sensing the potential for an accident, deployed safety systems automatically.
“There were some fundamental watch-standing problems. At some point, those operators chose not to follow your expectations,” Mr. Grobe told FirstEnergy officials. “It seemed that they performed differently in the simulator than in the control room.”
“Absolutely,” conceded Lew Myers, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. chief operating officer.
FirstEnergy officials said they are rechecking procedures and have given operators remedial training. They said more on-site consulting will be provided in early December by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the nuclear industry s chief technical organization.
The institute, in Atlanta, most recently had a consulting team at Davis-Besse in early October and has provided technical support throughout the plant s 21-month outage.
NRC officials weren t convinced.
Mr. Grobe pressed the company to seek out the cause of the operator errors, to discern how much of the problem stemmed from procedures, training, and implementation.
FirstEnergy s latest timetable calls for the plant to slowly ascend in temperature and pressure by Dec. 11, then be maintained in a nonnuclear mode while the utility pursues its final restart activities.
The decision will be made at a special NRC meeting that has not been scheduled.
Federal law requires the agency to post notices for that meeting at least 10 days in advance.
While conceivable that meeting could be held before the end of 2003, Mr. Grobe said the NRC will in not be tied to FirstEnergy s schedule and will set the meeting when it believes the plant can be operated safely.
“If there s any semblance of operator performance like what happened during the normal operating test, that meeting will have to be postponed,” he warned. “I certainly don t want to be perceived as picking on the operators, but the operators drive the bus, and everyone else rides the bus. There must be error-free operations.”
Scott Thomas, the NRC s senior resident inspector at Davis-Besse, said last month s errors stick with agency officials because “It happened at a critical time when they were expected to perform well and they didn t.”
Davis-Besse s system for safety-related design issues has been assessed by the NRC in a separate review. Results of that assessment were released last month.
NRC officials reaffirmed a desire to see those calculations refined.
“The problem is that engineering can be a silent process until you need a piece of equipment to operate. That s why self-assessment is so important. That s where we re at, that these issues could lead to problems,” Mr. Grobe said.
For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse