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Warning Rejected at Damaged Nuclear Plant

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  • Alan Cox
    September 30, 2002 -- 88 Warning Was Rejected at
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 30, 2002
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      September 30, 2002 -- '88 Warning Was Rejected at Damaged Nuclear Plant -- By

      WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 � The discovery in February that a reactor vessel in a
      nuclear power plant had corroded to the brink of rupturing may have shocked the
      plant's operators and federal safety regulators, but years ago, Howard C.
      Whitcomb saw it coming, or something like it. Mr. Whitcomb, a former Nuclear
      Regulatory Commission inspector who was hired by the owners of the Davis-Besse
      reactor, near Toledo, Ohio, to write a report on what was wrong with
      maintenance there, concluded in 1988 that management so disdained its craft
      workers that it had lost touch with the condition of the plant. Top executives
      responded swiftly and decisively, he said: They ordered him to change his
      report. He quit instead.

      Now, the owners are saying they need to get in better touch with their
      employees, who according to company surveys are still reluctant to raise safety
      concerns. In a meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-September,
      company officials explained that they were meeting with all 800 plant employees
      in small groups with a facilitator to improve communication. The plant, built
      for Toledo Edison, is now run by First Energy Nuclear Operating Company, after
      a merger. The simple problem at Davis-Besse, a 24-year-old reactor, was that
      water was leaking from two nozzles on top of the vessel. The water contained
      boron, a chemical used to regulate the nuclear reaction, and the boron
      accumulated in a hidden spot and ate away about 70 pounds of steel. The
      commission staff has said that the company's reports on the condition of the
      vessel head were misleading. Now the reactor head must be replaced, a task that
      has required cutting a big hole through a containment dome several feet thick.

      But there are broader questions. Why did the company delay making a change to
      the reactor head that would have made inspection possible? Why did not the
      Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which wanted all plants of Davis-Besse's type to
      inspect for the problem, push for earlier action? As is common after severe
      problems at a reactor, the commission has been examining the structure of
      management and what it calls the plant's culture, meaning the attitudes of the
      people who work there, the willingness of operators to raise safety questions
      and management's willingness to consider them.

      While the corrosion at the vessel head was not obvious, the boron had spread
      elsewhere, and the commission is particularly interested in why no one did
      anything about corrosion on a ventilation duct that was in plain sight of
      workers entering the containment. "People generally accepted that condition,"
      said Todd M. Schneider, a spokesman for First Energy. Since the discovery of
      the corrosion in the vessel head, management has worked to change attitudes so
      "those conditions are no longer acceptable," Mr. Schneider said. In his 1988
      report, Mr. Whitcomb mentioned the culture problems that are now recognized.
      "Many craft personnel hold strong negative perceptions of engineering and
      management personnel," he wrote. "In general, the labor forces feel that
      management exhibits a general lack of concern or respect for their abilities,
      efforts or problems."

      Mr. Whitcomb was hardly an industry rebel. A veteran of the nuclear Navy, he
      was a resident inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the H.B.
      Robinson reactor in South Carolina, and then went to a plant under construction
      in Ohio before being hired by Toledo Edison. After he gave two weeks' notice at
      Davis-Besse, he went to work at the Fermi reactor, near Detroit. Now he is a
      lawyer in general practice in Oak Harbor, Ohio, the location of the Davis-Besse
      reactor. In a report on June 20, 1988, to the company's vice president for
      nuclear power and the plant manager, he said that closing to refuel took too
      long; that preventive maintenance was slow and not fully effective because
      managers did not pay enough attention to the workers' needs; and that the
      workers were embittered. "Maintenance has traditionally been regarded in a
      subservient role at Davis-Besse," Mr. Whitcomb wrote. To be successful,
      management must recognize "the contribution that craft personnel may provide in
      the development of plant-specific maintenance actions." Managers must take a
      more serious attitude toward maintenance, he wrote. That finding in the report,
      a copy of which was provided to The New York Times by Ohio Citizen Action, a
      nonprofit group that has raised many safety questions about the reactor, seems

      "If they followed the advice of 20 years ago, we wouldn't be here now," said
      Amy K. Ryder, the group's program director in the Cleveland area. In an
      interview, Mr. Whitcomb said, "They just didn't want to hear it." Mr.
      Schneider, the spokesman for First Energy, said that the two executives to whom
      Mr. Whitcomb had made his report 14 years ago were no longer with the company.
      The report "was not up to our requirements," he said, but he would not confirm
      that Mr. Whitcomb had been told to rewrite it. Mr. Whitcomb left Toledo Edison
      voluntarily, he said. The company says it hopes to restart the plant this year.
      Work is progressing well on the head replacement, Mr. Schneider said. First
      Energy bought the head of a similar reactor in Michigan on which construction
      has been abandoned. It is still working on the culture, he said.

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