Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Davis-Besse: A Plan for Change or a Worst-Case Scenario? A Nuclear Reactor with a Hole in Its Head Should Have Triggered a Widespread Examination and Overhaul of the Safety Program at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station. Management Says It Has Learned Valuable Lessons: Critics Charge That It's Business as Usual

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Davis-Besse: A Plan for Change or a Worst-Case Scenario? A Nuclear Reactor with a Hole in Its Head Should Have Triggered a Widespread Examination and Overhaul of the Safety Program at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station. Management Says It Has Learned Valuable Lessons: Critics Charge That It's Business as Usual

Article excerpt

On Feb. 16, 2002, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. shut down the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station (DBNPS) in Oak Harbor, Ohio, for a fairly routine refueling and inspection operation that included checking for cracks in the reactor head nozzles. What workers found was anything but routine.

Cracks were found in several reactor head nozzles, but the worst was yet to come. On March 6, 2002, workers discovered a cavity with a surface area of 20 to 30 square inches in the reactor pressure vessel head. The cavity extended down through the 6.63-inch thick carbon steel reactor pressure vessel head to a thin, internal liner of stainless steel cladding. That cladding was the only thing standing between the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station and catastrophe.

"The fact that the reactor head did not rupture ... all I can say is that it was divine intervention," says Toledo, Ohio, attorney Howard Whitcomb, a former NRC inspector who worked at the Davis-Besse facility from 1985-88. "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the folks at Davis-Besse are trying to minimize the incident, but the truth is, it was probably the worst accident to occur since Chernobyl and at least as bad as what happened at Three Mile Island. If the head had ruptured at Davis-Besse, the collapse of the containment structure and widespread radioactive contamination could have created a health hazard for thousands of people and been a real threat to Lake Erie, which provides drinking water for 20 percent of the country."

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The official cause of the hole was an undiscovered boric acid leak--stemming from those cracked vessel head penetration nozzles--that was allowed to go unchecked for more than 4 years. A Lessons-Learned Task Force was created to investigate, and its report, published on Sept. 30, 2002, indicated a more insidious cause: the lack of a safety culture that would have allowed the problem to be found and stopped before disaster occurred.

The task force concluded that the nozzle leakage and the vessel head degradation were preventable. According to the task force, the event at Davis-Besse was not prevented because:

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* The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), DBNPS and the nuclear industry failed to adequately review, assess and follow-up on relevant operating experience;

* DBNPS failed to assure that plant safety issues would receive appropriate attention; and

* The NRC failed to integrate known or available information into its assessments of Davis-Besse's safety performance.

Jan Strasma, senior public affairs officer for the NRC, admits his agency "had to do some strong soul-searching of our own regulatory programs, our inspection procedures" in light of what happened at Davis-Besse, where the NRC had two inspectors in residence at the time the cavity was discovered. "We have placed more focus on reactor vessel head issues," he says, "and our training now includes a more heightened focus on the reactor head." (A scathing report released by the United States General Accounting Office [GAO] in May 2004 indicates the NRC still has three systematic weaknesses to address--weaknesses that could contribute to the safety of nuclear energy across the country. According to the GAO, the NRC needs to: identify early indications of deteriorating safety conditions at plants; develop a better system to determine if a plant should be shut down for safety concerns; and provide more monitoring of actions taken in response to incidents at plants.)

'A DISREGARD FOR SAFETY'

Roger Whitcomb was brought into Davis-Besse in 1985 as part of a team investigating an incident involving loss of feedwater through the steam generators. At the time, it was rated the second-worst nuclear incident after Three Mile Island. Whitcomb was the preventative maintenance program manager, and his job was to improve and create a viable preventative maintenance program at the facility. …

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