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Comment on this story.

Lawmakers say closer look at NRC needed
Monday, March 3, 2003

OAK HARBOR, Ohio (AP) — The discovery a year ago that acid had eaten a hole through steel at a nuclear plant along the shores of Lake Erie has prompted change, though some in Congress say the changes fall short.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur says a closer look at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is needed to determine how federal regulators did not find the problem sooner.

“They’re on my target list of attention,” said Kaptur, D-Ohio. “I will not let them out of my sights.

“I think they’re culpable. I think they need to be held accountable.”

Kaptur’s district along Lake Erie is home to the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, which has been shut down since the pineapple-size hole was discovered in a layer of steel covering its reactor.

During a routine maintenance outage, inspectors found that leaking acid had gnawed through the six-inch steel cap covering the plant’s reactor vessel. The corrosion and damage went unnoticed despite thorough inspections by the plant operator and the NRC since 1998.

The damage was the most extensive corrosion ever at a U.S. nuclear reactor and led to a nationwide review of all 69 similar plants. Two plants, one in Tennessee and another in Texas, have found leaks and a small amount of corrosion on the reactor heads.

Lawmakers say at issue is whether the NRC bowed to pressure from FirstEnergy Corp. and allowed the utility to keep Davis-Besse operating despite concerns about the reactor lid.

“There were a number of warning signs that make it hard, in hindsight, to understand how it wasn’t discovered earlier,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and industry watchdog for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The NRC has rejected allegations that it put profits ahead of safety. It has conceded that it should have detected the damage at Davis-Besse sooner and will make changes that include conducting more thorough inspections and demanding better assurances from plant operators that problems are fixed.

The NRC on Feb. 11 issued an order that all plants similar to Davis-Besse make visual inspections for cracks and damage to reactor caps and check the nozzles that pass through the lids.

Federal regulators also are making changes in their reviews of plants that include conducting more thorough inspections and demanding better assurances from plant operators that problems are fixed.

Lochbaum said most of the changes have been minor adjustments.

“Had there been six Davis-Besses out there then the scope of the changes would have been larger,” he said. “But most of plants didn’t have boric acid leaking over a period of years and reactor head damage.”

There also are questions about whether the agency’s inspectors were alerted three years ago to photos that the reactor’s lid was coated with rust.

NRC Chairman Richard Meserve has said officials made the right decisions based on the information they had available.

A Senate subcommittee that oversees nuclear safety met last month to question regulators why they did not review a report that indicated there was trouble with the reactor.

“This has really troubled me, and I’d like some answers,” said George Voinovich, R-Ohio, chairman of the subcommittee. Voinovich told regulators that they would be back “again and again” until he is satisfied that the problems were fixed.

“I want to know what the NRC is doing to prevent this from ever happening again at Davis-Besse or any other nuclear power plant in America,” Voinovich said. His office again this week said it would press for more answers.

Lochbaum said there is a concern that the resident inspector at the plant knew of some of the problems “but felt his hands were tied.”

“One reason the NRC missed some of the warning signs is because its budget has been cut every year since ’93,” Lochbaum said. “That means it has less inspectors.”

This year, the Bush administration proposed cutting funding for nuclear plant inspections even though the NRC’s overall budget would increase.

NRC officials said the budget was proposed before the problems at Davis-Besse came to light.

Kaptur said she would support more money for inspections.

The agency’s commitment to safety has been questioned even among its employees.

Only half of all NRC employees told the agency’s internal watchdog that they believe it is a safe career move to bring up safety issues. Many also said that they don’t think there is an emphasis on safety because there are too many close ties with the industry.

Kaptur and fellow House Democrats Dennis Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Ed Markey of Massachusetts have asked for a separate hearing on Davis-Besse in the House. But majority Republicans have not shown an interest.

Much of the blame for what happened at the nuclear plant near Toledo has fallen on its operator, Akron-based FirstEnergy. The company said it missed warning signs that should have tipped it off to the corrosion damage and is making more than $300 million in repairs.

———

On The Net:

Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov/

FirstEnergy Corp.: http://www.firstenergycorp.com/

Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/

End Advance


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