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Scientists blister NRC over Davis-Besse

03/04/03

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

The Union of Concerned Scientists stoked the fire under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday over its handling of the Davis-Besse debacle.

In a scathing 29-page analysis of the NRC's decision to allow the plant to postpone crucial safety inspections in the fall of 2001, the watchdog group charged that the agency's top officials knew that granting the six-week delay was wrong, "yet allowed it to happen anyway."

"They were afraid to fight [plant owner FirstEnergy Corp.]," said David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer with UCS and the author of the report. "Now we know the dimensions of the decision."

The study is based on about 1,000 pages of transcripts of depositions taken by the NRC's inspector general in interviews with federal and FirstEnergy officials and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The inspector general, who has blasted the NRC in a separate report to the commission and to Congress, was trying to learn why the agency prepared an order to shut down Davis-Besse because it suspected the reactor was leaking and then abandoned the measure in the face of opposition from the company. NRC Chairman Richard Meserve sarcastically dismissed that report, calling it a "disservice."

Yesterday's critique charges not only that the agency made a mistake by giving the company's financial concerns too much weight but also that top agency officials knew the plant was very likely leaking. It further says the NRC used analytical procedures inappropriately to justify allowing Davis-Besse to operate beyond the NRC's Dec. 31, 2001, inspection deadline.

And the review found that the NRC's Washington-based bosses made the decision without talking much at all to the agency's Chicago regional office, whose staff knew more about Davis-Besse.

Finally, it concludes that by allowing Davis-Besse to push off the inspection, the agency sent the wrong message to other utilities.

When Davis-Besse finally did shut down in February 2002, workers found that many of the nickel alloy tubes that carry control rods through the reactor's lid were cracked and leaking - just as both the company and the NRC's analytical models had predicted.

And on March 6, 2002, a worker repairing one of the tubes, known as nozzles, found a gaping rust hole in the reactor's lid, leaving only a thin stainless steel liner on the inside of the lid to keep the high-pressure, radioactive coolant from blowing out. The plant is still not operational. And while the company believes it will be ready to restart by next month, the agency says inspections should last at least through May.

The UCS report could figure into further congressional hearings, including an inquiry now under way by the General Accounting Office. Lochbaum said he would submit the analysis to any future hearings.

Lochbaum says at least three top NRC officials told the inspector general that the decision by Dominion Energy in Virginia to shoulder the expense of an unscheduled shutdown to inspect two of its reactors was "the right thing to do." Yet, faced with resistance from FirstEnergy officials, they permitted Davis-Besse to stay open.

And more important, said Lochbaum, Dominion used the same kind of risk analysis offered by FirstEnergy and approved by the NRC - yet it reached the opposite decision that the inspection couldn't wait.

"The NRC, by coercing Dominion Energy into shutting down. . . but permitting FirstEnergy to continue operating . . . established a perverse risk/reward system which penalizes plant owners with proper safety focus and rewards poor performing plant owners," Lochbaum concludes.

Using the testimony of top officials, including those of Samuel Collins, the NRC's head of reactor regulation, Lochbaum's analysis rips the compensatory measures that FirstEnergy proposed to be allowed to operate six weeks longer as meaningless "window dressing."

"All of those [compensatory measures], that's nice to have, and it may be enough to move some people . . . from one place to another," Lochbaum quotes from Collins' interview. "But when you get right down to what impact is on risk and significance, it's not that great."

Lochbaum's findings echo those of an NRC staffer whose six-page letter to top NRC brass was made public last week.

Analyst Steven Long said that the risk analysis FirstEnergy used to argue it was safe - and that Collins accepted - was not appropriate because neither the company nor the agency had enough data about Davis-Besse to make it valid.

Yesterday Long, who pioneered the development of risk analysis over the last 16 of the nearly 20 years he has been with the agency, said he penned his memo because he believes there will be more discussions and possibly hearings about why the NRC allowed Davis-Besse to defer the inspections.

"I am not sure what to expect, or even hope for," said Long of the still-to-come reaction from his bosses. "I think there are a lot of different interactions going on right now. And I wanted to try to get at some of the misrepresentations that were being used to avoid discussion."

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell yesterday said he had not been able to reach an official to comment either on Long's memo or on Lochbaum's critique. FirstEnergy's spokesman had no comment.

To reach these reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-9994842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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