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Inspector workload concerns NRC brass

05/17/03

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington- The ranks of workers who make sure the nation's nuclear power plants are operating safely are spread thin, in part because of the problems at the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor.

Basic reactor inspections are still being conducted partly by using private contractors, Cynthia Carpenter, deputy director of inspection program management at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told agency commissioners on Thursday.

However, a report from the NRC staff shows that inspectors have cut some procedures to a bare minimum allowed under NRC rules.

If done year after year, these "coping strategies" could "erode the staff's ability" to identify possible problems at nuclear power plants, said the April 21 report from William Travers, NRC executive director for operations.

The NRC staff insists that safety is not being compromised and that the staffing problems are temporary, caused by unanticipated events like the one at Davis-Besse.

But at the meeting Thursday, held to discuss agency oversight issues, several commissioners said they were concerned. Commissioner Greta Dicus said she worries that the agency is "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Workers at Davis-Besse, near Toledo, last year discovered a large hole in the reactor's carbon-steel lid, leaving only a thin, cracked liner to protect the reactor. The hole was caused by corrosion from a boric acid leak that went undetected by NRC inspectors for years.

With repairs under way and the plant under intensive scrutiny before it can restart, the NRC has sent extra staff members to the plant.

When the plant restarts - no date has been set - Davis-Besse will have three NRC inspectors on site for two years, said James Dyer, director of the agency's Chicago region. In the past, Davis-Besse has had as few as one.

The agency decided several years ago to cut back on the number of inspectors at each nuclear power plant and to borrow others from regional offices when needed. But job transfers and promotions from regional offices to headquarters have created vacancies in the regions.

In addition, staff members were borrowed to deal with security matters after Sept. 11, 2001, Carpenter said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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