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Published: Wednesday, 10/20/2004

Panel concludes Davis-Besse is making progress

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FirstEnergy Corp. has made strides toward improving its operations at Davis-Besse, according to an assessment performed by an outside team of nuclear industry experts.

But the utility still has a ways to go before its performance at the Ottawa County nuclear plant is as consistent as it ought to be, the assessment states.

The document is the first of four scheduled to be released in the coming months, each a condition of the restart authorization the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave in March.

The NRC yesterday released the document without comment. It said it would provide its analysis at its next special oversight panel meeting, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 6 in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The time, date, and location have not been announced.

The panel, created following the near-rupture of the plant's reactor head in 2002, caught some utility officials off-guard on Sept. 28 when it renewed long-standing concerns the agency has had about the utility's ability to self-diagnose problems.

Chairman Jack Grobe said at the time he wasn't convinced FirstEnergy "has that fire in the belly that carried you into restart," a remark which stood out against utility claims that the plant's operation had been nearly flawless.

Davis-Besse resumed operation in March following an outage that lasted more than two years. Unprecedented rust, safety-system design issues, and workplace morale were among the reasons the plant was kept idle for a record amount of time.

David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an industry watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., said the latest report makes it "clear the independent team did not whitewash anything."

"All in all, the report suggests that conditions at Davis-Besse are heading in the right direction, although there are some areas where progress is lagging somewhat," he said.

Concerns cited in the report include a lack of understanding about the work-scheduling process. Operators feel the schedule "is driving the plant activities more than the operations department," the report said.

The report suggested better training and better communication.

Richard Wilkins, a spokesman for the utility, said it did not yield any surprises. "It found we have been making progress. But as the report indicates, we still have more progress to make," he said. "In some instances, the attention to detail was not what it should have been."

Mr. Lochbaum said the outside assessments can be valuable. "They help FirstEnergy move in the right direction and avoid the temptation to back off now that the plant has restarted," he said.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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