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Published: Saturday, 8/14/2004

Activists fret over nuclear plant missteps

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The state's largest environmental group yesterday questioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about what it believes is a worrisome pattern of safety issues at FirstEnergy Corp.'s operating nuclear plants.

Ohio Citizen Action, in a letter to the top NRC official in the Midwest, raised the concerns in light of FirstEnergy's current troubles at its Perry nuclear plant east of Cleveland and its past problems with the Davis-Besse reactor in Ottawa County.

"What will it take for the NRC to realize that FirstEnergy must not be allowed to run nuclear power plants?" Sandy Buchanan, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action, wrote to the NRC. "Will FirstEnergy have to cause an actual nuclear disaster before the NRC takes preventive action?"

On Thursday, the commission cited the Perry facility, which FirstEnergy operates, and decided that Perry will become only the fourth nuclear

plant since 2000 to undergo the highest level of inspection allowed for operating plants.

The NRC required the inspections because of ongoing issues associated with the company's inability to detect, fix, and do sufficient follow-up on certain pieces of safety-related equipment. The equipment includes components related to a high-pressure emergency cooling pump, as well as two cooling-water pumps.

Ms. Buchanan sent her concerns to NRC Midwest regional chief Jim Caldwell in a letter yesterday. She wrote that she believes FirstEnergy did not learn enough from its troubles at Davis-Besse, where it allowed so much acid to escape from the plant's reactor that the radioactive structure nearly blew open its old lid in 2002.

The company later admitted during its two-year shutdown it had allowed profits to become more important than safety at Davis-Besse throughout much of the 1990s, but claimed to have turned around the situation there. The Ottawa County plant was authorized to resume operation in March.

Ms. Buchanan said a blown fuse Davis-Besse workers failed to recognize while performing routine tests last week is a sign that FirstEnergy wasn't ready to resume operation. The fuse problem activated safety systems and automatically resulted in an emergency shutdown.

The NRC has been criticized by activists for failing to get tough with FirstEnergy about Davis-Besse, which the agency eventually acknowledged as the industry's biggest safety failure since the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island complex in Pennsylvania 25 years ago.

Viktoria Mitlyng, NRC spokesman, acknowledged the agency received Ms. Buchanan's letter but had no immediate response.

She said a team of special inspectors was being assembled for Perry, and said they may spend months there. "There is an issue with the thoroughness and effectiveness of [Perry's] corrective actions," she said.

Perry will be allowed to continue operating while the NRC's team visits. The inspections, part of the NRC reactor oversight program initiated a few years ago, are mandated when sub-par performance is cited for five consecutive quarters.

The only complexes that have received a similar level of scrutiny since 2000 are Indian Point in New York, Oconee in South Carolina, and Point Beach in Wisconsin. Davis-Besse was treated differently because a number of problems had been identified after that plant had been shut down, Ms. Mitlyng said.

No outstanding performance issues have been documented at FirstEnergy's other nuclear complex, the twin-unit Beaver Valley facility west of Pittsburgh, she said.

Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, acknowledged Perry's performance issues.

"It's a fact there are a string of them and we don't seem to have a handle on them," he said. "We have made some progress, but we still have work to do to get the performance of that plant to where we think it should be."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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