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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2003

Regulators questioning plant safety

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

OAK HARBOR, Ohio - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission told FirstEnergy Corp. yesterday it does not believe the company can safely operate the beleaguered Davis-Besse nuclear plant, reviving speculation that the plant could remain idled for several more weeks - if not months.

Rick Skokowski, head of the NRC s Restart Readiness Assessment Team, told FirstEnergy officials that on-the-job observations of Davis-Besse employees and managers “did not give us adequate assurance you would be able to run the plant safely.”

The assessment team reported that performance has been far too erratic since it arrived Dec. 8 to assess the utility s fitness for resuming operation. And another NRC inspection team found that workers have become increasingly skeptical about the company s attempts to improve the safety culture.

Jack Grobe, NRC oversight panel chairman, said the findings issued yesterday have pushed back the final consideration of a restart.

“Our concern is there has been a notable decline in several areas and in several departments between March and November,” Mr. Grobe said. “We don t understand what s caused the declines. ... None of these are uniquely safety-significant issues, but they are indications there are some things going on that we don t fully understand yet.”

Gary Leidich, president of FirstEnergy s nuclear subsidiary, and Lew Myers, the subsidiary s chief operating officer, said they will be able to answer the NRC s concerns and expect to resume operations soon.

“Restart is well within our sight,” Mr. Ledich said.

But NRC spokesman Jan Strasma said it won t happen this year. He and others have repeatedly said their sole focus is safety, not schedule.

“I can guarantee you it [Davis-Besse] will not restart in 2003. That s ironclad,” he said. When Mr. Strasma was asked about the possibility of restart being authorized days, weeks, or months after a scheduled Dec. 29 meeting to discuss the restart, he said, “I can tell you it will not be days,” he said.

The readiness team found that procedures for testing equipment and operating the plant weren t followed to the letter and said confusion about certain types of equipment was evident. Operators weren t clear on ways of avoiding buildups in air and water pressure, he said.

There was general disorganization and poor oversight, including incomplete briefings before certain shifts.

On Sunday, a shift manager gave the inspection team reason to believe he didn t understand the plant s operating condition.

Some employees crucial to running the plant even made the inspection team believe they were confused about when they were supposed to report for duty, said Mr. Skokowski, senior resident inspector at the Byron nuclear complex near Rockford, Ill.

Control room and equipment operators were among those who fared poorly.

Numerous violations were cited, so many that the NRC didn t have an exact count - although the agency pointed out that nothing posed a risk to public safety, in large part because the plant is in a nonnuclear mode.

Several of the violations that the readiness assessment team cited against control-room operators and equipment operators are similar to those that other NRC inspectors cited during the plant s near-normal pressure test in September, Mr. Skokowski said.

That led NRC officials to believe that actions taken by FirstEnergy to correct problems identified in September have not been effective, he said.

The inspection team s preliminary findings were among two reports presented yesterday at a public meeting at Davis-Besse s administration building.

A separate group of inspectors assessing the plant s “safety culture” and “safety-conscious work environment” said FirstEnergy has met several of the NRC s objectives for improving morale and fostering conducive relations so that employees can be more forthcoming about reporting problems.

But the NRC s Management & Human Performance Inspection Team reported that a recent company survey shows there was a downturn in workplace attitudes from March to November in some crucial departments, including operations, engineering, maintenance, and quality assurance.

It found that nearly a fourth of all control room and equipment operators indicated in November that they believe FirstEnergy has put profits ahead of safety, an emphasis on production that the NRC has said is largely responsible for Davis-Besse s problems.

In March, just 6 percent felt that way, according to a breakdown of survey results released yesterday by the NRC.

The inspection team also said FirstEnergy has failed to lay out an adequate strategy for maintaining a positive safety culture.

The NRC s oversight panel told FirstEnergy officials to provide more information by Dec. 29 so that the many weaknesses cited by both inspection teams can be addressed in greater detail then.

That meeting, at 6 p.m. in the Oak Harbor High School auditorium, originally was scheduled as the public s last chance to discuss the company s restart application before a recommendation was made to James Caldwell, the agency s Midwest regional administrator.

Davis-Besse is now in the 23rd month of what was supposed to be a month-long shutdown to refuel and do routine maintenance on the plant.

Three weeks after the plant was idled on Feb. 16, 2002, the worst case of corrosion atop a U.S. nuclear reactor head was revealed - a sign to the NRC of sloppy maintenance and oversight.

Numerous equipment and management issues have been identified since.

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



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