PERRY, Ohio - A supervisor at FirstEnergy Corp.'s nuclear plant here is being investigated for pushing a control-room button that is supposed to be left alone while the plant is idle.
The unidentified employee's error caused one of the Perry nuclear reactor's many control rods to leave its fully inserted position.
The event did not come close to causing a nuclear reaction: The rod came out only two of its possible 48 positions and could not have started the reactor on its own even if it had come out all the way, explained Jan Strasma, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Control rods are filled with boron and keep reactors idle as long as the rods are fully inserted.
But Mr. Strasma said the regulatory agency is puzzled by a recurring theme: Why did this happen?
The plant has been down for refueling since Feb. 21. The supervisor engaged the one control rod at 2 p.m. Thursday, even though such buttons are supposed to be pushed only by front-line operators. He also should have known better: The supervisor has a higher level of training. He holds an NRC license as a senior reactor operator, Mr. Strasma said.
"At this point, we are still looking into the circumstances. It was obviously a personnel error," he said.
NRC officials repeatedly have expressed concerns about fundamental performance issues at FirstEnergy plants since 2002, when the utility nearly let Davis-Besse's nuclear reactor head burst open. The company has admitted it failed to do maintenance for years. The massive corrosion, the worst of its kind in U.S. nuclear history, burned through all but a thin liner that's not designed to hold back the reactor's enormous pressure.
FirstEnergy recently announced a fleet approach to its plant operations, causing more anxiety among some agency officials. The utility has told the NRC it did not just reduce its work force to save money: It reasoned that a leaner operation would result in cross-trained employees who will better serve the company.
Davis-Besse and Perry, both operated by FirstEnergy, are Ohio's only nuclear plants. FirstEnergy also operates the twin-unit Beaver Valley complex west of Pittsburgh and oversees the mothballed Three Mile Island Unit 2 it inherited via merger.
"We've taken many steps to ensure this won't happen again," Todd Schneider, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said. "This was a rare incident that we certainly don't want to happen again. We want to be error-free."
The Perry plant is scheduled to resume operation in late March.
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