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NRC chief blisters watchdog's report


John Mangels, John Funk and Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Reporters

In a harsh and unusually public rebuke, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has rejected the findings of his own inspector general that top NRC officials let financial concerns, not safety, drive their oversight of the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant.

Richard Meserve, writing on behalf of the five-member NRC governing board he chairs, said the conclusions of the agency's internal watchdog are "unjusti- fied, unfair and misleading." He said the inspec tor general is guilty of "Mon day-morning quarterbacking" and has done a "significant dis service" with its faulty analysis. The report was released last Friday.

Meserve's blunt, dismissive tone shocked some former NRC commissioners, members of Congress and agency observers.

"The commission ought to be reflecting on its performance rather than quibbling over the details of the inspector general's report and then rejecting the whole thing," said Victor Gilinsky, an NRC governor from 1975 to 1984. "It seems to me they're on some other planet."

"The inspector general's report is a scalding indictment of the NRC's handling of the Davis-Besse reactor's inadequacies," said Rep. Edward Markey, a 13-term Massachusetts Democrat and senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the NRC.

Joining Ohio members of Congress Dennis Kucinich, Marcy Kaptur and George Voinovich, Markey is calling for a congressional investigation of the NRC and its handling of the Davis-Besse affair. He said the inspector general's report could force hearings into what he said is the agency's pattern of putting industry profits over public safety.

The report delved into how senior NRC officials reached a controversial decision in late 2001 to let Davis-Besse delay a mandatory safety inspection to determine if the reactor's lid was cracked and leaking. Workers later found that the Toledo-area reactor had a rust hole through its steel lid - the closest brush with a nuclear accident since 1979's Three-Mile Island.

The investigation, based on interviews with NRC managers and staff, concluded that the agency's decision not to order an emergency shutdown of Davis-Besse was deeply flawed and driven largely by an inappropriate concern for a shutdown's financial impact on the plant's owner, Akron's FirstEnergy Corp.

Meserve was particularly rankled by that conclusion, calling it a "significant failing" in a six-page memo sent Wednesday night to NRC Inspector General Hubert Bell. The response from Bell's office was quick, and equally as pointed.

"Our report is accurate and stands on its own," said one of its authors, NRC senior assistant for investigative operations George Mulley Jr. "It states facts, all of which were told to us by the NRC staff. I can show you every line and what it's based on. We're disappointed with the reaction" from the chairman.

The inspector general's mission is to root out internal problems and report them to Congress and the NRC chairman. NRC commissioners or the agency's senior staff do not always agree with his findings. What is so different this time, observers say, is the belligerence of the response.

"It is brazen in tone, more like 'What are you going to do about it?' " said Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a watchdog group.

"It's not typical for the NRC to react so emotionally to an inspector general's report," said nuclear engineer David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Meserve, who is leaving the NRC in March, "is worried about his legacy."

Meserve could not be reached for comment yesterday, but a spokesman said the memo speaks for itself. Point by point in it, the NRC chairman sought to refute each of the report's five major findings. But he sometimes mischaracterized or was selective about aspects of those findings:

Meserve insisted that safety, not economic concerns, drove the Nov. 28, 2001, decision to let Davis-Besse postpone the lid inspection until Feb. 16, 2002, even though the NRC and FirstEnergy strongly suspected the lid was cracked and leaking. He cited the "unanimous" agreement among NRC staff that the "slight delay" in Davis-Besse's shutdown would not compromise public safety.

"The implication . . . that there was a clash of conflicting goals and that safety was subordinated to economic considerations is wrong," Meserve told Bell.

However, Bell found that there were two staff votes about Davis-Besse on Nov. 28. Only the second was unanimous. When initially asked whether the reactor should be immediately shut down or allowed to run until Feb. 16 with some added measures to lessen the risk of a nuclear accident from lid cracks, three of the 12 to 16 staffers opted for the shutdown.

An NRC manager then proposed a different question, asking if anyone thought an accident would be likely before Feb. 16. No one said they did.

It is this vote that Meserve asserts showed staff unanimity. Lochbaum characterizes it as a "Soviet election process."

"After being asked if they wanted to put their NRC careers on the line, the three [original dissenters] said no," Lochbaum said. "That's a unanimous decision at the NRC. The chairman must be very proud."

The inspector general concluded that the large body of evidence indicating that Davis-Besse's lid was leaking should have been enough to justify an immediate shutdown, and that NRC staff didn't act because it had an unreasonably high standard of absolute proof.

Meserve, by contrast, contended that the NRC staff correctly based its shutdown delay on the "acceptably small" risk of an accident during the extra few weeks of operation. He said the subsequent discovery of only small lid cracks proved that the decision was right.

But, as the report noted, those leaking cracks also prove that the NRC staff allowed the reactor to operate in violation of federal regulations, which require that if any coolant is escaping from vital barriers like the lid, the reactor must be shut down within 30 hours. Meserve did not address that point.

Meserve claims that NRC staff concerns about the effectiveness of extra measures taken by Davis-Besse to lessen the risk of an accident were "quickly resolved." However, a dispute about at least one of the measures went on for weeks after the NRC approved the shutdown delay.

Since Meserve's response is the final word within the agency on the matter, it will be up to Congress whether to break the impasse between the NRC commission and the agency's inspector general.

"The NRC has become a rogue agency," Kucinich said. "They refuse to accept oversight, and they refuse to provide oversight."

Given Congress' pro-nuclear industry leanings, though, observers say wholesale reform of the NRC is likely to be difficult.

"In the current political climate, I think that's not going to happen quickly, if at all," Gunter said.

"It just underscores the nature of nuclear power and its control of the political process."

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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