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Lawmakers say closer look at NRC
neededMonday, 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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
On The Net:
Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov/
FirstEnergy Corp.: http://www.firstenergycorp.com/
Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/
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