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Regional News | Article published Sunday, August 31, 2003
DAVIS-BESSE
Reactor near to a dismal record
565-day mark is Wednesday
Picture

Workers guide the Davis-Besse replacement reactor head into the containment building in August, 2002. By Wednesday, the plant will have been idle for 565 consecutive days.
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By TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER


Still defending itself from allegations that it may have caused the nation’s worst blackout, FirstEnergy Corp. is about to break the previous record for futility at Davis-Besse.

On Wednesday, Davis-Besse will have sat idle for 565 days, setting a plant record for consecutive days without producing electricity. The previous record was 564 consecutive days between June 9, 1985, and Christmas Day, 1986.

The cost of the current outage is more than $500 million, and is starting to approach the $642 million price tag that it cost to build the plant in 1977.

The 1985-86 shutdown occurred after a series of pumps and valves failed, causing a loss of coolant water to the reactor core of the plant. In circumstances that sound strikingly similar to the current shutdown, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission referred to the 1985 accident as the worst since Three Mile Island in 1979. It resulted in an extensive investigation into the operation and management of the plant, 30 miles east of Toledo near Oak Harbor.

Although then-operator Toledo Edison Co. restarted the plant on Dec. 22, 1986, the reactor "tripped" and shut down after several hours without producing electricity. Three days later, operators restarted the plant on Christmas Day, 1986, and achieved enough power so that electricity could be produced, ending the consecutive-day shutdown streak at 564 days.

However, Davis-Besse continued to struggle with shutdowns on and off into early January, 1987.

The current shutdown began Feb. 16, 2002, as a normal refueling and maintenance outage. NRC staff wanted FirstEnergy to move up the refueling from its scheduled date in March, 2002, to late fall 2001 so that a check could be conducted on control rod nozzles for cracks like those found at a South Carolina plant with a similar pressurized water design.

But FirstEnergy balked and the NRC decided to allow FirstEnergy to keep the plant in operation until Feb. 16 - only about a month earlier than the originally scheduled outage.

After Davis-Besse was shut down, plant officials found that boric acid had leaked through flanges atop the reactor head and ate a half-foot hole in the carbon steel of the reactor head.

Only a layer of stainless steel three-eighths of an inch thick prevented the pressure of radioactive steam inside the reactor from leaking into the containment building. The NRC called the corrosion the worst it had ever seen and launched an investigation into what went wrong.

FirstEnergy originally announced plans to return the plant to service in April, 2002, but that date has repeatedly been pushed back in response to the discovery of other problems and NRC scrutiny - such as concerns about the safety culture among management and employees at the plant.

There is a sense of déjà vu for some NRC and Davis-Besse officials when it comes to the two extended shutdowns and the issues of plant management and regulatory oversight:

During both outages, the workplace environment has been questioned. "What was really necessary was a change in attitude, a change in management style," Joe Williams, Jr., Toledo Edison Co.’s senior vice president of nuclear operations, was quoted as saying about the 1985 incident in the fall of 1986. "A lot of the problems went back to Day One."

The deep cavity found in Davis-Besse’s reactor head has been likewise attributed by the NRC to a lack of questioning attitude on behalf of FirstEnergy management and its workforce.

Although FirstEnergy has replaced the reactor head with an unused head from a Michigan plant, the NRC has become so concerned about the company’s attention to detail that it has subjected the plant to only its second formal "safety culture" review. The only other site to have undergone such a review is the Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut, where NRC officials have said they believe workers were harassed and intimidated if they tried to report problems.

FirstEnergy is to make a lengthy presentation about its progress Sept. 18 at the NRC’s Midwest regional office in Lisle, Ill. The agency will take FirstEnergy’s presentation under consideration, then hold at least one more meeting on the topic to give the company feedback before restart, Jan Strasma, NRC spokesman, said.

During both outages, the NRC has had its own credibility questioned by members of Congress and other high-powered officials in Washington.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), after hearing about the reactor head corrosion 18 months ago, questioned the capability of the NRC, an agency she accused of being weak and ineffective with its handling of Davis-Besse’s 1985 incident. Although Miss Kaptur called for Davis-Besse to be shut permanently in 2002, she has not been as outspoken in recent months as has U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland).

Earlier this year, Congressman Kucinich petitioned the NRC to revoke FirstEnergy’s operating license at Davis-Besse. More recently, in response to finger-pointing alleging FirstEnergy may have responsibility for the nation’s worst blackout, he petitioned the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to revoke the utility’s right to do business in Ohio.

A long paper trail of records reviewed by The Blade shows others have shared their skepticism about Davis-Besse.

A report prepared for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power just days after the June 9, 1985, event suggested that the coolant-water episode at Davis-Besse should not have surprised the NRC. The report said 48 problems concerning Davis-Besse’s auxiliary feed-water system had been reported by Toledo Edison since July, 1979. The plant unexpectedly shut down 40 times between 1980 and 1985 - at least half of those times because of hardware problems and at least nine times because of human error.

In April, 1987, former U.S. Sen. John Glenn (D., Ohio) introduced a bill that ultimately led to the creation of the NRC’s Office of Inspector General. Senator Glenn said at the time that the NRC is "supposed to be a watchdog, not a lapdog."

Earlier this year, that same Office of Inspector General accused the NRC of putting profits ahead of safety when it allowed Davis-Besse to wait until February, 2002, to shut down for refueling and the safety inspection for control rod cracks.

Former NRC Chairman Richard Meserve vehemently denied that charge.

George Mulley, the inspector general’s senior level assistant for investigative operations, told The Blade that a follow-up probe into the NRC’s oversight performance at Davis-Besse will likely be released this month.

Part of the criticism the NRC received following its 1985-86 probe of Davis-Besse stemmed from its decision to back off from a proposed $900,000 fine against Toledo Edison.

The agency originally said it would impose the penalty because of a "long history of ineffective and inadequate attention and direction in the operation and maintenance of the Davis-Besse facility."

But in 1987, the NRC cut the fine amount to $450,000. The agency explained that it had changed its mind because it was impressed by Toledo Edison’s aggressiveness toward establishing "a long-range, in-depth corrective action program to address the problems that existed at Davis-Besse."

No fine has been issued in connection with the current problems at Davis-Besse. A decision on any civil penalty depends on whether the NRC’s Office of Investigations believes there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing to turn over to the Justice Department for prosecution.

"The criminal process would take precedence over the civil process," Mr. Strasma said.

Although the two extended outages appear to have some parallels in terms of oversight, the country’s mood toward nuclear power at the time they each began was likely very different.

Early last year, in the weeks before the reactor head corrosion was discovered at Davis-Besse, the nuclear industry had the best reason for optimism since before the Three Mile Island accident.

After 23 years of doldrums, nuclear energy was embraced by the White House as a solution to energy problems. Congress in 2002 eventually eliminated one of the nuclear industry’s most nagging obstacles to expansion when it designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a burial site for spent reactor fuel.

Contrast that with how most people felt about nuclear power when Toledo Edison restarted Davis-Besse in December, 1986. Several months earlier, on April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear accident had occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear complex near Kiev, Ukraine. Thousands died, either immediately from the blast or from radiation-related sicknesses in the following years.

As Davis-Besse moved closer to restart, Toledo Edison’s Joe Williams, Jr., sought to allay fears. On Sept. 7, 1986, the retired U.S. Navy vice admiral devoted nearly an entire page in The Blade to a 2,000-word letter in which he explained what happened at Davis-Besse, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl.

"A Chernobyl simply cannot happen here for a variety of reasons," Mr. Williams wrote, citing the containment at U.S. nuclear plants among those reasons.

The hiring of Mr. Williams has been seen as one of the key moves Toledo Edison made in response to Davis-Besse’s 1985 shutdown.

A former commander of the U.S. Atlantic submarine fleet and the NATO submarine fleet, he was brought in on June 18, 1985, nine days after the shutdown began. He took the helm under the title of senior vice president in charge of nuclear operations, and was given wide latitude in decisions.

Davis-Besse’s manpower was expanded to 890 employees in 1986, up from 644 in 1985. There was less reliance on contractors.

Compare that with the current workforce at Davis-Besse, which totals 725 full-time employees in a deregulated, more competitive market. FirstEnergy spokesman Richard Wilkins acknowledges there are far fewer employees today and that the trend has been to bring in more contractors to do specialized work.

Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy’s nuclear subsidiary, has told the NRC that he has put a renewed emphasis on training.

Yet employees fear burnout: Some have privately complained about working in excess of 72 hours a week throughout much of the 18-month outage.

A number of key positions, including some in Davis-Besse’s engineering department, have been filled by employees from FirstEnergy’s Perry nuclear plant near Cleveland and the Beaver Valley nuclear station at Shippingport, Pa.

Howard Whitcomb, a Toledo lawyer and former NRC resident inspector in South Carolina who worked under Mr. Williams at Davis-Besse after the 1985 incident, has said he believes many of the workplace issues that exist at Davis-Besse today would not have been tolerated under the former vice admiral’s reign.

"You’ve had a few really close calls at Davis-Besse," said Jim Riccio, Greenpeace nuclear policy analyst in Washington, citing the two extended outages and a 1998 tornado which narrowly missed the plant.

"I’m wondering when luck is going to run out."

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



More articles on this subject »
Fallout from blackout continues to unfold 08/29/2003
FirstEnergy insists fears of cash woes unfounded 08/24/2003
Cut down energy use, utility says 08/21/2003
Five quarters’ earnings restated by FirstEnergy 08/21/2003
Congressman to ask state to pull FirstEnergy’s plug 08/20/2003

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