Friday, December 27, 2002 at 12:43 PM
At a time when the Bush administration has been calling for new sources of electricity, the troubles at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo have been a thorn in the side of operators, lawmakers, and regulators alike. The reactor with a hole in its head has made national headlines and its impact may be even more far-reaching. For the last nine months, ideastream's Karen Schaefer has been following events at the plant. She prepared an in-depth look at what's been happening at Davis-Besse - and what the outlook for the future might be.
The massive cooling tower still looms above the rural landscape, but the customary vapor cloud is gone. In the parking lot there are nearly as many empty spaces as cars. Most of the more than 2,000 contract workers that have been at the plant this year have done their jobs and gone home. Employees still come to work everyday, but the Davis-Besse nuclear plant remains closed as it has been for the last nine months and no one can say exactly when or even if the plant will open again. Most people have heard about the Ohio nuclear plant with a hole in its reactor. But many questions remain about how it could have happened.
This past year the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has deployed extraordinary resources to discover what caused the damage. Davis-Besse’s owner, FirstEnergy Corporation, has spent more than 400 million dollars in repairs and replacement electricity. Both federal regulators and the company suffered a loss of public trust they are still working to regain. But FirstEnergy CEO says he won’t throw money into the damaged plant indefinitely and the nuclear industry is warning other plant owners to take heed at Davis-Besse’s experience.
Meanwhile, the local communities of Port Clinton, Oak Harbor as well as the dozens of small hamlets scattered across the rural Lake Erie landscape are facing the loss of income from over 700 high paying jobs. jobs that will disappear if the plant closes for good. And, if Davis-Besse is allowed to restart, people as far away as Toledo and Cleveland could find themselves living with a flawed nuclear plant as a neighbor.
Jack Grobe, Nuclear Regulatory Commission: What’s occurred was the discovery of unprecedented degradation in a critical barrier in a nuclear power plant.
On February 16, 2001, workers at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant shut down the reactor in preparation for regular two year refueling. By order of the NRC, they were also to inspect the control rod nozzles that penetrate the reactor pressure vessel, the specially designed contained that houses the reactor core. These boron filled rods are inserted into the core to control the output of the nuclear reaction. FirstEnergy discovered that five of the nozzles had developed cracks, they also discovered another problem.
Newscast ambience: Federal inspectors say that a small hole in the reactor cap at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant does not pose a safety threat. The hole was caused by acid leaking onto the steel cap that covers the plant’s reactor. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Jan Strazama says the deterioration is on a very important safety feature at the plant. The Commission has alerted the nations 102 other commercial nuclear plants to watch for similar problems.
Regulators immediately confirmed there were no radiation leaks. NRC region 3 spokesman Jan Strasma says the plant multiple safety systems would have prevented such an accident.
Jan Strasma: It’s not a near brush. It’s not a good situation. It’s a serious situation. It’s good that it was caught at this point. I don’t think that we can say that we were close to a major problem.
But it quickly became apparent that the company was trying to downplay the magnitude of the problem. The small hole was actually the size of a football. Inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed the boron leaking from the cracked nozzles was probably the source. When mixed with water, boron becomes boric acid. The acid had eaten all the way through the 6-inch carbon steel safety cap that covers the reactor. Only a thin stainless steel liner remained in tact, holding in radioactive coolant and more than 2000 pounds of pressure and that liner had warped.
NRC officials say that if that liner had broken thousands of gallons of only slightly radioactive but extremely hot water would have flooded the reactor’s containment building. They insist no radiation would have escaped. But others aren’t so sure the public’s safety was not compromised. Paul Gunter is director of the nuclear watchdog project, the Nuclear Resource and Information Service in Washington. He’s been looking over the shoulders of nuclear plant operators and regulators for the last 20 years. Gunter wants to know why federal regulators, who are supposed to oversee nuclear power plants, didn’t catch the damage sooner.
Paul Gunter: We are continually concerned by the lack of regulatory rigger on the part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It appears that their mandate for public health and safety protection is preceded by company interests time and time and time again.
Federal regulators continued to insist that the damage at Davis-Besse would not have resulted in a loss of coolant accident, the NRC’s shorthand for the type of incident that closed Three-Mile Island in 1979.
Jan Strasma: It was within the capabilities of the plant’s emergency systems to continue pumping water into the reactor and to maintain the reactor in a cool and safe condition. However, it would be a significant challenge to those safety systems obviously something that needs to be avoided at all costs. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission knows with the report that they released last year that in 82% of the nuclear power plants in the United States those systems will not work.
But nuclear watchdogs have not been reluctant to call the Davis-Besse damage a near miss. David Lochbaum with the Union Of Concerned Scientists in Washington is a nuclear engineer with 17 years experience in the nuclear industry. Lochbaum says what alarms him was the revelation that Davis-Besse owner, FirstEnergy, failed to report earlier signs of corrosion to the NRC.
David Lochbaum: Back in 1998 they were getting boric acid crystals on the outer surface of the reactor vessel so thick that they couldn’t see the metal and they couldn’t see the damage that was there. Their design requirements didn’t allow that boric acid to be there, so the discovery of the boric acid itself should have been enough to send up an alarm and they’re paying a huge price.
NRC official: This boric acid was very hard and difficult to remove. In fact, the Davis-Besse staff used crowbars to break off deposits from the head.
The NRC set up a special oversight group, so called O350 panel, composed of high-level officials from Washington and elsewhere around the country. In April, it also held the first of its monthly meetings in the community of Oak Harbor about 8 miles from Davis-Besse to tell the public what was happening. Lead NRC investigator Jack Grobe was appointed the oversight panel’s chairman. Grobe who has served before on oversight panels at other troubled plants is a top executive of the NRC’s Region 3 office in Lisle, IL.
Jack Grobe: A barrier wasn’t breached, but it was very significantly degraded. Corrosion that is unprecedented in the industry that couldn’t have happened overnight.
Over the next few weeks, the NRC discovered that FirstEnergy had not maintained the agency’s program for removing boric acid crystals from the reactor. They also found that plant operators had failed to aggressive pursue clues to the corrosion such as filters clogged with rust. But the agency was forced to admit there were also regulatory failures in its oversight of the plant. The NRC launched an investigation into it’s own actions and promised to learn from its mistakes. But that wasn’t enough for angry local residents
Local Resident 1: Woulda, shoulda, coulda, you people are experimenting with these nuclear plants yet you really don’t know what’s going on. And I would like to know how you can risk the lives of 100’s of thousands of people with experiments. I mean…
Local Resident 2: I’m not a scientist, I’m a grandmother and excuse me but I am furious.
Local Resident 3: You came within 3/16 of an inch of rupturing a critical reactor safety component, how can you expect the public to have confidence?
Both the company and federal regulators were suffering from a serious loss of credibility. Toledo Congresswoman Marcy Kaptor and Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich were among several politicians who called for a Congressional investigation into the safety of the Davis-Besse plant.
Marcy Kaptor: This is not the first time that Davis-Besse has had problems. I’m going to talk with members of our Congressional Committees who have oversight over energy to see if there’s not a way that we could do a special hearing about this plant and others like it.
Dennis Kucinich: There’s 6 million people who live within a 100-mile radius of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant. I support Congresswoman Kaptor’s call for Congressional investigation. I’m actually on one of the subcommittees of the house, which has oversight over the NRC.
Other inquiries followed. First the NRC’s office of investigations launched a criminal probe into the company’s actions seeking to discover if Davis-Besse staff had deliberately withheld information. Spokesman Todd Schneider denies the company had any criminal intentions.
Todd Schneider: We take each investigation seriously. We admitted we had made a mistake but we did nothing criminal.
NRC requests for more information on possible corrosion from other nuclear plant owners revealed no immediate concerns. Davis-Besse’s problems seemed to be isolated. But in July, the NRC’s inspector general began an internal investigation of senior agency officials. The previous year, in August of 2001, federal regulators had asked owners of all 69 of the nations water-pressurized reactors to check for the possibility of cracked nozzles. The same cracked nozzles that had led to the boric acid leaks at Davis-Besse. To check, owners had to shut down their reactors and report back by the end of the year. Unidentified leaks had been documented at Davis-Besse but FirstEnergy asked for and received a 6-week extension from the agency to operate past the yearend deadline. The NRC inspector general wanted to know whether staffers who had made the decision had succumbed to government or industry pressure.
Columbus resident and former Green Peace activist Harvey Wasserman is one who thinks they did. He was more than 1 of a hundred anti-nuclear activists from Ohio, Indiana and Michigan who staged a late summer protest rally at a state park a few miles west of Davis-Besse.
Harvey Wasserman: The industry as a whole gets an ego stake and a political stake in forcing the reactor to reopen. They don’t want it to look like they made this mistake and that the reactor had to shut. They want to say, no-no we can fix this even if they can’t.
Protestor at rally: Your safety and this community’s security is our first priority. Is that a lie?
Protest reply: Yes
Protestor at rally: Are you gonna take it?
Protest reply: No
Protestor at rally: What are we gonna do?
Protest reply: Shut it down
Protestor at rally: Shut it down permanently!
As protestors called for permanent closure of the plant some local residents wondered aloud why federal regulators had failed them.
Local resident: My main concern is whose watching the NRC? I mean that’s the question.
Some residents also began to equate the recent rash of corporate scandals at companies like Enron and World Com with the actions of the Davis-Besse management. Through the summer, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company made major changes in its corporate structure replacing nearly all of the managers who had overseen the plant in recent years. In August former plant manager and later vice president of Davis-Besse, Howard Burgendall, was suddenly replaced. The man in charge of restarting the plant was now FENOC Chief Operating Officer, Lew Myers, a middle aged executive with a soft spoken southern accent. Just days after the NRC investigators found at least 11 violations at the plant; Myers admitted the real cause of the damage at Davis-Besse was a decade long focus on production, while safe operations of a reactor took a back seat.
Lew Myers: The people at Davis-Besse they will tell you they know the standard slipped. They know that the management hadn’t been as strong as it used to be. I’m not even going to tell you some of the things they tell me here.
Even before the full extent of the reactor head damage was known, the company presented a plan to repair Davis-Besse to federal regulators. Initially, the plan was to weld a patch on the existing head, something that was never been done before at a nuclear plant. When federal regulators proved unwilling to endorse the proposal, FirstEnergy decided to replace the reactor head with an unused component of similar design from a plant in Midland, MI.
FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company video: Davis-Besse has begun mobilizing to replace the reactor vessel head after determining this is the primary path to returning the unit to service. The Midland reactor vessel head has been tested to determine that it meets all applicable codes and requirements.
In July, the replacement reactor head from Michigan arrived at Davis-Besse with little fanfare. FirstEnergy acknowledged the event only after the fact.
But the most serious allegations were yet to come. In August, David Lockbaum from Union of Concerned Scientists flew to Ohio from Washington to deliver a challenge to the NRC. From agency documents obtained from the freedom of information act, Lockbaum and Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information Resource Service, had pieced together a trail of evidence they believed pointed to fundamental regulatory failures. In particular, they discovered that an order to immediately shut down Davis-Besse had been drafted late in 2001. At the last minute Lockbaum says, the order was scrapped and regulators gave the company permission to operate until an outage could be scheduled 6 weeks later.
David Lochbaum: The NRC’s process last year identified Davis-Besse as a safety problem. They were in the process of drafting an order to shut the plant down, but didn’t. In the future if this plant or any other plant crosses that line and the NRC thinks it’s across that line, will they have the ability to shut down that plant before it’s too late?
Sam Collins acknowledges it was he that made the final decision allowing Davis-Besse to continue to operate. Collins is the Director of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the NRC’s headquarters in Washington. As a senior agency official, Collins says he relied heavily on input from agency engineers and investigators in accessing the risk that cracked nozzles could exist at the Davis-Besse reactor. At a public meeting Oak Harbor to answer questions about his decision, Collins emphasized that regulators had no idea that there was a hole in the plant’s reactor.
Sam Collins: You can’t ever assume that you know it all and we lost confidence in that area. Now, there was no accident, but we found out something that we didn’t suspect.
But Collins admits that consideration of FirstEnergy’s financial burden during the shutdown or outage did play a part in deciding how long to let the plant keep running.
Sam Collins: Our goal is to maintain safety. We have 4 performance goals that cascade down from maintain safety being paramount to being an efficient and effective organization to reducing unnecessary regulatory burden when possible and then doing a business in a way that instills public confidence in the NRC as a strong credible regulator. If financial aspects of a licensee comes into play when we consider unnecessary regulatory burden, in the case of the Davis-Besse facility, once we decided that it was appropriate for the plant to continue to run, then the decision became well, how long should it run and what’s the appropriate date, earliest as possible, when there could be an efficient and effective outage to accomplish the goals of the inspection.
In September a new Congressional probe of the NRC from the general accounting office, brought the total number of federal investigations at Davis-Besse to 7.
The last such investigation was in 1994 when the GAO warned of weaknesses in federal oversight of the nuclear industry. Regulators admit that the damage at the Davis-Besse plant has required more scrutiny than at any other US plant in recent years.
The financial impact of the unprecedented damage that developed at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant has so far fallen hardest on FirstEnergy Corporation as repair estimates soared from 10 to 150 million dollars; investors began to count stock market losses from $0.35 to $0.55 per share. In the short run experts agree its company shareholders will bear the cost of Davis-Besse. Under deregulation agreements with the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, FirstEnergy was allowed to recoup up to 9 billion dollars in stranded costs for it’s second Ohio plant, the Perry Nuclear Station, about 20 miles east of Cleveland. Electricity prices in Northern Ohio are already some of the highest in the nation due largely to the high cost of nuclear power. Those prices remain fixed until 2004 when the company may apply for a rate increase. Consumer activists like Amy Ryder note that given the PUCO’s recent history of decision-making, it’s likely that FirstEnergy’s customers will be paying in the long run. But Ryder’s organization has just handed the company another bill. In December, Ohio Citizen Action, a state chapter of a national organization told FirstEnergy that it should customers back for the electricity generating costs it’s been collecting while Davis-Besse has been closed.
Amy Ryder: The generation portion of that number for Davis-Besse is about 500 million and for the last 10 months CEI and Toledo Edison rate payers have doled out about 80 million dollars for Davis-Besse. The plant is no longer used and useful. It’s not operating at a competitive market, we think ratepayers are being gauged and we want that money refunded.
Ryder admits the company is unlikely to penny up. In addition to repair costs, FirstEnergy is also faced with the cost of buying replacement electricity for its customers. Energy prices held mostly steady this year and company officials say they were able to negotiate some favorable long- term contracts that will carry them through the new year. Even so, officials say the utility has had to shell out an average of 10 million dollars a month for replacement electricity since mid-February and that cost is likely to continue. Between repairs and replacement power, the total bill for the damage at Davis-Besse is estimated by the utility at 400 million dollars. While owner FirstEnergy is not in any particular financial difficulties, in December CEO Peter Burg told the stockholders and employees that he is not prepared to throw money down the Davis-Besse black hole forever. The announcement followed news of more possible leaks on the bottom of the reactor, which the company is investigating. But Lew Myers, the man in charge of restarting the Davis-Besse plant says he’s not worried.
Lew Myers: We could find something we don’t know, but there’s no indication of that now. We really anticipate having the plant functionally tested early next year.
A handful of other nuclear plants have closed in the last decade due to financial burdens deemed to great by utility owners. Indian Pont just outside New York City and Yankee Main in New England were among them. David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists Nuclear Power Expert was involved in the battle over safety issues at the Yankee Main Plant. He says there’s a broader industry interest in keeping Davis-Besse open.
David Lochbaum: The best thing for everybody regardless of your views on nuclear power is for the regulator to be as effective and efficient as possible, because if there is another Davis-Besse next year or the year after, that taints the entire industry. It costs the entire industry money to respond to Davis-Besse type events forgetting what its costing FirstEnergy and the people of Ohio.
To date, at least one other utility has ordered new reactor heads for its plants and others are reported considering new heads too. Lockbaum says there’s no question but that the industry sees the cost of increased scrutiny like that at Davis-Besse to be significantly higher than making needed changes on their own. But FirstEnergy is not just repairing a hole in its reactor. Company officials say they’ve learned from their mistakes and are going over the entire plant with a fine tooth comb, searching for and correcting problems that have nothing to do with safely restarting the plant under NRC guidelines. Two innovations the utilities installing leak-monitoring system borrowed from Europe and a new design to enlarge the capacity of containment sump will be the first of their kind in the US. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials say it’s likely an insider industry group will push other plants to adopt the new technologies too.
The Institute for Nuclear Power Operations or INPO was formed after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. It has a quasi-regulatory authority conferred on it by the industry itself. When an incident occurs, INPO issues a confidential report to all nuclear plant operators encouraging the industry to police itself and head off tighter regulations. In late November an INPO report on Davis-Besse was leaked to the media. In it the group warns that the route cause of the damage at the FirstEnergy plant putting production ahead of safety could be a broader problem in the industry. Bill Dean works in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the NRC’s headquarters in Washington. He’s also Vice-Chairman of the Davis-Besse Oversight Panel.
Bill Dean: They basically took things that occurred at Davis-Besse and then linked those to some of the warning flags they had about plants that had these warning flags. These could be indicators that you could be going down the tubes. We’ve learned a lot of lesson about those things and a lot of industry has taken them to heart. Those are the type of things that have helped foster this, overall industry improved performance.
Many believe such changes may not be an option for the nation’s aging nuclear fleet. The NRC has concluded that the cracked nozzles that caused the leaks at Davis-Besse are not widespread among US plants although other reactors with cracked nozzles have been identified. Davis-Besse is now 20 years old; its initial operating license will expire in 2017. Most of the US plants fall into much the same category. Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information Resource Service believes that if they want regulators to re-license them, older plants will have to replace worn out parts or decide to shut down.
Paul Gunter: The Davis-Besse issue poses an international problem for the nuclear industry. This is of paramount concern when we’re talking about an inherently dangerous industry that grows older with each day of operation as components continue to age and deteriorate.
Gunter and other watchdogs say ultimately what happens at Davis-Besse could have an effect on the building of new nuclear plants. The NRC is currently considering a cookie cutter design for smaller nuclear plants that could hold down regulatory costs and make the industry safer as a whole. Yet despite the Bush administration’s call for additional nuclear power as one way to help supply America’s growing energy needs, to date no US utility has sought licensing for a new plant.
It’s less clear what impact the events of Davis-Besse will have on federal regulators. In a self critique of it’s own actions in overseeing the plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions special lessons learned task force send 51 recommendations to senior agency officials in November. The NRC’s Bill Dean says among them is a proposal that the agency be less credulous of licensees and spend more time following up to check that plants have properly performed inspections and taken corrective actions.
Bill Dean: One of the big lessons learned for me is how do we assure ourselves that when there’s a safety issue, we go to the point that we either issue a generic letter or bulletin or some significant correspondence to industry that we sustain some level of involvement and monitoring of those programs.
The report highlights another factor that may have contributed to oversight failures by federal regulators: lack of resources. NRC officials freely admit that despite placing resident inspectors at each nuclear plant and conducting regular plant inspections there is no way the agency can check up on everything itself. Federal regulators depend on licensees to accurately document and report on their own operations with the understanding that if they fail the costs of closer regulation can be crippling. That works as long as nuclear plant operators cooperate. But when plant operators fail to keep that compact, as they did at Davis-Besse, the system breaks down. The lessons learned task force report says clearly the agency was distracted by the need to oversee other troubled plants and didn’t spend the time it should have at Davis-Besse.
Donna Lueke: What about funding? From what I was able to understand from the website over 90% of the funding comes from the licensees. That seems to be an inherent problem.
Some watchdog groups are calling for more funding for the NRC a point that has not escaped US lawmakers. Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich has been a long time supporter of nuclear power in a state singularly handicapped by air pollution from dirty coal burning power plants. He chairs the powerful Clean Air Subcommittee whose duties have traditionally included oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Voinovich says he believes the agency is up for more funding in 2003.
George Voinovich: I think they are getting more funding. I should have the answer to that question, but we didn’t have any hearing this year.
Voinovich also says he wants to make sure the agency has the best people it can get.
George Voinovich: The issue of human capitol and the personnel you need to run the agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a real problem. They have about 6 times more people over 60 at that agency then they have under 30.
Congressional oversight of federal regulators may have other impacts. While the NRC is expected to announce in January the agency wide changes in will make in response to the problems at Davis-Besse. Voinovich and other members of Congress are still calling for a Congressional hearing on the issue. In October, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich held a field briefing in Cleveland on Davis-Besse. Among other things, he wanted more information oh how federal regulators could have overlooked years of corrosion that lead to a hole in the reactor. Kucinich says he’ll continue to follow the issue.
Dennis Kucinich: What this is all about is trying to regain public confidence and the process of oversight and regain public confidence in the company itself. So, I want to stress we all want FirstEnergy to succeed, but it’s success will come only when the highest level of regard for public safety is demonstrated. What can we do to provide an antidote to the lack of management and technical oversight that we have now seen in this 2nd close call at the Davis-Besse plant?
While political pressure may appear to have more clout, public opinion is almost as important to federal regulators. The NRC began holding local public meetings on Davis-Besse in April and has recently changed the schedule and location of those meeting to encourage greater attendance by local residents. Early on the agency began transcribing not only discussions held with FirstEnergy, but also the comments of residents and Watchdog Groups at evening meetings held in Oak Harbor. Ohio Citizen Action’s Amy Ryder says door to door campaigns near Davis-Besse conducted by her organization since April show the NRC has lost the trust of local residents.
Amy Ryder: You know, people joke it’s the Nuclear Non-Regulatory Commission. You know they really seem more like they’re there, they want to guide the industry but they really don’t mandate anything. They don’t regulate. There’s just no teeth to this organization and that’s a problem. Their most powerful tool is the threat of shutting these plants down, revoking the license, and Jack Grobe stands up at a public meeting and says we will not do that; we will not revoke the license. I think that was a message to the utilities you can walk all over us. As long as that takes place, nuclear power can’t be safe in this country.
Davis-Besse oversight chairman Jack Grobe has admitted it’s unlikely the agency will levy fines against plant owner FirstEnergy despite findings of numerous violations. He says the NRCs experience is that fines are not as effective as the threat of increased oversight. Grobe has also made it plain the NRC has never permanently closed a troubled plant that was willing to make the effort to meet NRC requirements.
At the local level, residents are facing a black hole if FirstEnergy should decide to close the Davis-Besse plant. While Ottawa County relies to some extent on Lake Erie tourism for its income, major employers like Davis-Besse are still its primary source of revenue. Property taxes from the plants more than 700 employees go to support local schools in nearby Oak Harbor. Oak Harbor High School boasts an auditorium not equaled elsewhere in the county and the city school superintendent is one of the highest paid in the region. At a recent meeting between regulators and Davis-Besse owner, FirstEnergy, Ottawa County Commission President Carl Koebel says it’s time to get the plant back online.
Carl Koebel: Today my confidence gained more than it did the last month and I think next month it’ll gain even more. Because we’re seeing a move toward restart and we know how important that is. Why is it important? Think of the contributions that Davis-Besse has made to this county. We just went through a tornado, because of the Davis-Besse sirens we were able to warn the people and although we lost a lot of property, we lost no life and we had no serious harm.
Most Davis-Besse employees actually live in the area in Oak Harbor, Port Clinton or one of the dozens of small hamlets scattered around the lakeshore. Ottawa County Development Corporation Director Gerald Opfer agrees that loosing jobs at Davis-Besse could be devastating to the local economy.
Gerald Opfer: Besides being the major employer in Ottawa County, one of the things that is fairly easy to understand is the taxes that the Davis-Besse pays to the school, the township, the county and also we shouldn’t forget the state of Ohio.
But Amy Ryder of Ohio Citizen Action says if jobs are lost at Davis-Besse people should be angry with FirstEnergy Corporation.
Amy Ryder: At the last public meeting there were a lot of local businessmen, local elected officials who testified a lot about the importance of Dais-Besse to local economy. I think they’re really taking the wrong approach. Even the biggest advocates of nuclear power know that this plant is not going to operate forever and at some point it’s going to shut down. It’s inevitable. Rather than postponing the inevitable, I think these local elected officials need to start dealing with reality and need to start figuring out what will happen when that plant closes.
More than nine months after Davis-Besse was shut down with the worst reactor corrosion damage the nuclear industry has ever seen, no one can foresee when or even if the plant will reopen. FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company officials now say they hope to have repairs, modifications and testing of new equipment completed by the end of February. But the company is no longer forecasting a particular date when they will be ready to ask federal regulators for permission to go ahead. The man in charge of restarting Davis-Besse, Chief Operating Officer Lew Myers, says he recognizes the need for continued vigilance.
Lew Myers: Well, I think if I look back at the plant, I think that we had the problem in ‘86 and we fixed a lot of material things and then as time went on a lot of the lessons learned there we really didn’t incorporate into the culture of the plant. I think that even after we get this plant started up, in my new job as Chief Operating Officer, I just got to be vigilant to make sure that we have the right leadership there with the right technical skills.
NRC Oversight Panel Vice-Chairman, Bill Dean, agrees that vigilance is needed. He says fixing the hardware is relatively easy, but fixing the corporate culture issues that led to the damage at Davis-Besse will be a challenge for both the company and federal regulators.
Bill Dean: It’s easy for them now with the spotlight on them to do all these extra things and take the extra mile to put these, well you hear Lou Meyers well, we put this plate in we didn’t have to do that and we we’re doing this something modification we didn’t have to do that. But, what about 2 years from now or 3 years from now if they’ve been restarting or operating for a year or two. Are they still going to be making the decisions with that same sort of context, with that same sort of approach?
Dean says if the plant reopens, heightened scrutiny at Davis-Besse will remain in place long after the reactor is running again. But he warns that date may still be sometime off. Regulators have created their own restart checklist of issues the company must deal with before the NRC will begin to give approval to reopen the plant. Dean says while the agency has done a number of inspections in several none of the items on the list have yet been checked off.
Bill Dean: Do I think it’s feasible that the plant will start up sometime in the first half of next year? I think it’s in the realm of possibility. Am I making a prediction that they will? No. We’ll we satisfied when we’re satisfied. But I think if you were to start seeing us issue changes to the restart checklist, checking things off saying we’ve completed our activity, that would be a signal that we’re starting to make progress from our perspective as a regulator that we’ve got some assurance that the licensee has completed those things that we think they need to.
Oversight Chairman, Jack Grobe, acknowledges that FirstEnergy has moved quickly to recognize and fix the problems that led to the damage. He said the company is making good progress on increasing their focus on safety.
Jack Grobe: I’ve been involved in the oversight of a number of plants that have gotten themselves into performance problems. None of those plants have ever resulted in significant safety issues for the public, but each of them has been different and resulted in degradation of the defense and depth that is critical to the safety of nuclear power plants. The efforts at most of those plants to discover the extent of their problems and fix those problems have taken on the order of 2-3 years. Davis-Besse brought in many of the experts that had experience at recovering plants from problems like that, that had proven track records in instilling safety culture in finding problems in dealing with these kinds of issues and they brought these people in right away, as soon as they realized they had a problem. This is significantly shortened the learning process that the utility has to go through to appreciate the depth and scope of their problem. I think that’s the first indicator of a changed safety culture.
Davis-Besse employee: I hear a lot of people who have concluded that Davis-Besse should shut down. What I can tell you is that we have not concluded that Davis-Besse should start-up. We’re worried that it won’t. But we’re working very hard to make it so.
But among groups that would like to see Davis-Besse permanently closed there is still a concern that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not made the same kind of effort to fix internal problems being made by the utility. Nuclear Information Service watchdog Paul Gunter, points out that it took nearly a year for the agency to present findings of it’s own self-evaluation.
Paul Gunter: The NRC’s primary mission was revealed at Davis-Besse to promote electricity production by reducing federal oversight. That condition has not changed and that is very alarming.
NRC officials say they hope to announce changes within the agency as early as January. But those same officials warn that adopting some changes could take longer. Ultimately it would be Grobe’s immediate supervisor, Jim Dyer, who heads the NRC’s Region 3 office in Illinois and Bill Dean’s boss, Sam Collins, who made the decision to let the plant continue operating last year, who will decide if Davis-Besse can restart. The agency’s mandate to minimize the impact of regulation on plant operators continues to worry industry watchdogs like David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He suggests that a reorganization of the agency’s resources may be necessary to assure public safety.
David Lochbaum: I think the one issue still lying under the rug is the issue of NRC resources. The NRC has conceded that part of the problem at Davis-Besse has been that the agency didn’t give it much attention over the last few years because there were other plants that were getting a lot of regulatory attention. If instead we reallocated those resources so more time was spent inspecting the operating rather that reacting to the regulatory surprises maybe we’d have fewer surprises.
Both the regulators and the nuclear industry say the safety of nuclear plants have gotten better over the last decade. But both agree there’s room for improvement. In March, current NRC Chairman Richard Meserve will step down from his leadership of the agency. Activists hope that politicians on both sides of the aisle will see the appointment of a new chairman as an opportunity to change the culture of the agency from the top down. Republican Senator George Voinovich says he’s more concerned about finding someone with the right technical qualifications to lead the NRC. But he says the issue of Davis-Besse could come up in senate sub-committee discussions.
As the new calendar year approaches, many issues surrounding the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant remain unresolved. The outcome of numerous congressional and criminal investigations into the NRC and FirstEnergy is still pending and could affect the size of any fine that might be levied against the company. Regulators assessment of the safety significance of the Davis-Besse damage altered after the reactors steel liner was found to be cracked could also affect penalties. Even though most of the damage has been identified and repairs are nearing completion, new issues could still arise that would delay a restart long enough for FirstEnergy to reconsider it’s investment in the plant and public pressure from local residents and industry watchdogs could still slow oversight sufficiently to cause the company to decide to close the plant permanently.
In the end it will be up to federal regulators to say whether or not Davis-Besse can reopen but it will be up to everyone, the NRC, the nuclear industry, politicians and the public to make sure that what happened at Davis-Besse does not happen again.
In Cleveland for 90.3 I’m Karen Schaefer.
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