Little things mean a lot. That’s the message from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to Akron, Ohio–based First Energy Nuclear Operating Co. (FENOC) concerning consistent niggling operating problems at the company’s Perry Nuclear Power Plant.

It’s a human performance issue, the NRC said, not an engineering design problem at the 1,235-MW General Electric boiling water reactor near Cleveland. The plant is relatively new (only 24 years old). According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, the NRC has been troubled about the plant for some time and expressed concerns late last year about plant worker issues.

The Plain Dealer reported, “Perry has had problems for four consecutive quarters that involve minor errors by workers involving everything from routine maintenance procedures to repair orders.” The federal regulatory agency told the utility “in a letter as long ago as March that while the plant was operating safely overall, the day-to-day mistakes persisted, and the company’s efforts at improvement did not appear to be working.”

FENOC responded rapidly. The company, dealing with the NRC’s concerns, in August ordered a stand-down at the plant. At a meeting with the NRC in mid-November, Kurt Krueger, director of Perry site operations, said, “On Aug. 27, we did a stand-down. We stopped all work” at the plant to discuss performance issues. The stand-down was the start, he said, of a major retraining program emphasizing individual responsibility for quality and safety performance.

Krueger, the newspaper reported, said the plant retraining “not only instructs workers how to avoid making mistakes. It also puts a responsibility on every employee to identify and report situations or even long-established practices that could lead to doing something incorrectly.

“The focus now is for every employee to look closely at everything in the plant itself every day to spot a condition, a practice or a situation that might conceivably lead to mistakes.”

The newspaper reported that Krueger met with every manager at the nuclear plant, requiring a written statement from the manager acknowledging the change in emphasis at the plant from production to safe performance. FirstEnergy has a history of safety problems at its nuclear plants, including a notorious reactor vessel corrosion issue at its Davis-Besse plant near Toledo that kept the plant out of service for more than a year.

The NRC in November held an open meeting with FirstEnergy to discuss the “human performance” issues. Mark Satorius, NRC Region III administrator, said the problems at Perry constitute a “very low safety significance.” But, he added, “The plants that have these problems with human performance—it can transform themselves into problems” that “affect safety. It’s time for Perry to move forward and get their arms around this.”

According to the News-Herald newspaper, which also covers the Cleveland area, the NRC findings “marked the fourth time since March 2008 that the NRC alerted FENOC about these [human performance] issues. From July 2008 through June 2009, the assessment period continued to exhibit weaknesses in human performance, according to the review.”

In mid-October, FirstEnergy initiated a “controlled shutdown” at Perry because one of the three pumps that supply cooling water to the plant tripped off during a test. According to the NRC, the plant is currently operating at full power.

FirstEnergy is a large investor-owned utility holding company with operations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, formed out of a number of smaller, troubled utilities in the later 1990s and early 21st century. The company has about 4.5 million customers. Among the firms that became subsumed in First Energy were Ohio Edison, Centerior (a 1986 merger of Toledo Edison and Cleveland Electric Illuminating), and GPU (owner of Jersey Central Power and Light, Metropolitan Edison, and Pennsylvania Electric Co.).

The company is largely (56%) coal-driven (7,892 MW). Another 28% (3,945 MW) is nuclear, 11% (1,599 MW) is gas or oil-generated, and 5% (796 MW) comes from pumped storage and other renewables. FirstEnergy owns the Davis-Besse, Perry, and Beaver Valley nuclear stations. GPU sold its Three Mile Island Unit 1 to Exelon before becoming part of FirstEnergy.
 
The Ohio company has a long record of management problems with its Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, a Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactor of essentially the same design as GPU’s Three Mile Island Unit 2, which saw a core melt-down in a loss-of-coolant accident in late March 1979, the worst civilian reactor accident in U.S. history.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER magazine.