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Nuclear agency says it wasn't affected by politics

02/20/03

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington- Investigators examining the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's handling of the Davis-Besse power plant concluded that political pressure played no role in the regulator's actions, according to newly released documents.

The NRC's inspector general's office conducted interviews last year to see, among other things, whether Sen. George Voinovich tried to sway the NRC to let the plant near Toledo operate beyond Dec. 31, 2001. The NRC wanted to shut down the plant, fearing possible cracks or leaks in the nozzles that pass through the reactor lid, but plant owner FirstEnergy lobbied the agency for an extension.

The NRC compromised, letting the plant run until mid-February last year. Workers soon found a hole in the reactor's lid, a potentially catastrophic condition caused by years of leaking boric acid. The plant has since been closed for repairs.

The NRC inspector general's office last month said the regulator allowed the delay in part because of the financial impact a shutdown would have on FirstEnergy. But documents obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act show that the inspector general also looked into - and ultimately dismissed - a suspicion of political pressure.

Transcripts of interviews, released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, show investigators asked NRC, FirstEnergy and other officials about Voinovich's role. The Ohio Republican chairs a Senate subcommittee that deals with nuclear-power issues and is regarded as pro-nuclear.

The inspector general's office concluded that Voinovich and his staff "played no role. They were not a factor in this thing at all," George Mulley Jr., deputy assistant inspector general, said yesterday.

Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn said, "There were not any contacts made between Sen. Voinovich and the NRC relative to this at all - either to inquire as to the status or to urge the NRC to hurry up or slow down." The only request, he said, came from a committee staffer who asked the NRC chairman - after an unrelated briefing - to keep the committee informed on Davis-Besse.

"I felt unencumbered, really, by any of that," Sam Collins, director of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, told investigators, according to a transcript.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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