NRC Official Concerned About Safe Restart Of Nuclear Power Plant

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer

OAK HARBOR, Ohio (AP) - The chairman of a special regulatory panel says it's not yet clear whether FirstEnergy Corp. has made the changes it needs to ensure a safe restart of the Davis-Besse power plant.

"I believe that this is the basic issue and the root cause and the issue you have to grapple with," Jack Grobe, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel, told the company at a hearing Tuesday.

The plant has been shut down since February, when inspectors discovered during routine maintenance that boric acid had corroded a steel cap that covers the reactor vessel.

As a result, the NRC is investigating the safety of reactor vessel heads at 69 pressurized-water reactors across the nation.

At issue before Grobe's oversight panel is whether Davis-Besse violated federal safety rules last year when it kept operating while the reactor lid was cracked and leaking.

Grobe said during the hearing at Oak Harbor High School that boric acid corrosion of the lid was not surprising, based on technical issues known in the industry for years.

FirstEnergy last week confirmed that its nuclear division made mistakes at the plant about 25 miles east of Toledo.

Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., said that before the corrosion was discovered, there had been communications problems and a feeling of complacency among the Davis-Besse workforce. He said the plant's history of reliable performance made employees hesitant to bring up problems.

"We were tremendously embarrassed by the reactor head issue and the missed opportunities," Myers said.

The company said it's now encouraging workers to discuss problems as soon as they know about them. Myers said FirstEnergy wants to "set the standard of returning Davis-Besse to service in a safe and reliable manner and doing the job right the first time. We have to fix the problem and not try to justify it away."

NRC panel member Jon Johnson, the deputy director of the commission's office of nuclear reactor regulation, toured the plant Tuesday and spoke with employees.

He said FirstEnergy has a lot of work to do to accomplish its safety goals.

"You've got to get the trust back of your employees. They said action speaks louder than words," Johnson said.

FirstEnergy officials said at the hearing that they are waiting for the NRC's permission to begin installing the replacement reactor lid, which has been at Davis-Besse since July 18.

Akron-based FirstEnergy will spend as much as $75 million to replace the reactor lid. It wants to reopen the plant by the end of the year.

FirstEnergy operating companies serve 4.3 electric customers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The NRC on Monday rejected a petition from 14 public interest groups who want to appoint an outside panel of experts to verify that appropriate measures to protect the public are being taken at the plant.

The NRC said it turned down the petition because its oversight efforts, combined with those of special committees the company has formed, are sufficient to reassure the public that reasonable safety measures have been taken.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)