Lapse at Ohio Reactor Is Cited as Potential Peril for Others
The New York Times, Washington, November
By Matthew L. Wald
Original address: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/20/national/20NUKE.html?tntemail1
In a confidential report,
the nuclear industry's internal oversight group has warned utilities
that a focus on production over safety had endangered an Ohio reactor
and could be a broader problem around the nation.
Corrosion at the Ohio reactor, discovered in March,
ate away 70 pounds of steel and left the reactor vessel vulnerable to
rupturing. But while the physical degradation of the reactor was unique,
the internal report suggested that the causes might not be. The report,
not intended for distribution outside the nuclear industry, said the
First Energy Nuclear Operating Company, operators of the reactor, Davis-Besse,
near Toledo, had fallen prey to "excessive focus on meeting short-term
production goals" and "a lack of sensitivity to nuclear safety."
"The lessons learned from the Davis-Besse event
are universal in nature and should be reviewed by all nuclear stations,"
said the report, by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, a group
formed by the industry after the March 1979 accident at Three Mile Island,
Pa., to share expertise and reduce the chance of further meltdowns.
The report is marked "limited distribution" and is coded "Red:
For several years, outside critics have raised alarms
about a deregulated power market, saying managers would cut corners
to keep reactors operating when they should have been shut for maintenance.
Even the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised that concern,
At Davis-Besse, in Oak Harbor, about 25 miles east
of Toledo, managers postponed taking the time to inspect an area on
the vessel head that turned out to be corroding, and ignored warning
signs that this was happening, the report said.
The industry has not publicly admitted to any worry,
nor seized the Davis-Besse incident as a warning. The new report, however,
recommended that each nuclear company "conduct a self-assessment
to determine to what degree your organization has a healthy respect
for nuclear safety and that nuclear safety is not compromised by production
The institute has a quasiregulatory function, bringing
lagging reactor operators up to the industry standard as a way to head
off tighter rules from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After the
meltdown of the reactor at Three Mile Island, in March 1979, the industry
created the institute to investigate problems at each plant and to issue
confidential reports to the others, so they all could benefit from lessons
learned. Operators of all the nation's power reactors are members of
the institute, and on the intermittent occasions when its internal assessments
become public, they have all been written in blunt terms. Industry executives
say its pronouncements are carefully read.
This one, nine pages plus footnotes, was made available
by a nuclear industry expert who is seeking to have the industry take
it to heart.
A spokesman for the institute, Terry Young, said
its personnel could get access to the plants, and state their findings
plainly, only if everyone agreed that the findings should be kept within
the industry. "We cherish that sense of trust," he said.
Mr. Young said the reports did, in fact, discuss
management issues when that was relevant.
The report, dated Nov. 11, cites one failing that
seems to show that Davis-Besse's operators had not learned to benefit
from other failures. In a July 2001 report to members, the institute
emphasized the importance of inspecting for corrosion after a less severe
problem was found at a similar plant in South Carolina, Oconee. The
institute said managers suffered from "isolationism."
The Oconee report was "reviewed and accepted"
by management at Davis-Besse, the institute said, but managers did not
perform the inspection on their own plant.
A year ago, even as the steel was being eaten away,
the plant's operator was seeking permission to raise its power output
by 12.9 percent above what it was licensed for when it opened in 1978.
Experts not involved in the preparation of the report
said that it touched on a difficult area, determining when priorities
have been put in the wrong order and people's attitudes have shifted
away from safety and toward production, and that this report differed
from most written by the institute because it focused on upper-level
"Talking about management is very sensitive
for them," said Andrew C. Kadak, the former president of the Yankee
Atomic Electric Company, an umbrella company for three reactors, and
a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog
group that is generally critical of the industry, David Lochbaum, a
nuclear expert, said measuring attitudes toward safety was hard for
people in the industry.
"Most of the nuclear industry's people are
engineers," Mr. Lochbaum said. "They love equations, things
they can measure. But safety culture isn't something you can do that
on; you can't see how many feet of safety culture you have and whether
you've come up shy or not."
Paul Blanch, a nuclear safety consultant, said that
for "merchant" plants, the ones selling their production in
deregulated markets, "their only concern is making money."
Mr. Blanch said the institute's report "hit
the nail on the head."
"Production does come before safety,"
he said. "They've got to strike the proper balance."
An engineer at a nuclear plant that was shut for
safety reasons for a time in the 1990's, who would not allow his name
to be used, said the report was a shift for the institute, which began
by trying to share best practices around the industry, and later on
human performance, but which is now focused on leadership performance.