| Article published Sunday, August 31, 2003|
near to a dismal record
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
outages, the NRC has had its own credibility questioned by members
of Congress and other high-powered officials in
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
A long paper trail of records reviewed by The Blade
shows others have shared their skepticism about
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
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
Former NRC Chairman Richard Meserve vehemently denied
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
simply cannot happen here for a variety of reasons," Mr. Williams
wrote, citing the containment at U.S. nuclear plants among those
The hiring of Mr. Williams has been seen as one of
the key moves Toledo Edison made in response to Davis-Besse’s 1985
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.
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
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
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
"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
For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to
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