| Article published Friday, January 10, 2003|
Outgoing chief of NRC decries critical
By TOM HENRY
WASHINGTON - Outgoing Nuclear Regulatory
Commission Chairman Richard Meserve - under fire for his agencyís
admitted oversight lapses at FirstEnergy Corp.ís troubled
Davis-Besse nuclear plant - has fired back against internal
In a seven-page memo sent Wednesday night to NRC
Inspector General Hubert T. Bell, Dr. Meserve said a critical
25-page report issued by the inspector generalís office last week
was "unjustified, unfair, and misleading."
"The report serves
only to deflect attention from the real safety issue raised by the
Davis-Besse episode, the unexpected [reactor] head corrosion," Dr.
Meserve wrote. "As you know, the NRC acknowledges its programmatic
shortcomings concerning that matter and is addressing them. You have
done a significant disservice by your release of such an unfair
The memo, which had only limited distribution that
night, was posted on the agencyís Web site yesterday.
inspector generalís report charged that senior NRC officials put
profits ahead of safety - a serious breach of the agencyís mandate -
by cutting a compromise deal with FirstEnergy that allowed the
utility to wait until Feb. 16 to shut down for refueling and safety
inspections. Agency staffers had recommended and agency lawyers had
approved an order for a more immediate shutdown Dec. 31, 2001. The
order was drafted because NRC staffers had reason to believe
Davis-Besseís reactor-head nozzles were cracked and leaking - a sign
of a major equipment breakdown and safety risk at the plant, the NRC
inspector generalís office said.
FirstEnergy fought efforts
for an early shutdown because of costs: A utility not only loses
money when a nuclear plant is down, but it also risks having its
financial rating impacted, according to the inspector
The shutdown order drafted for Davis-Besse would
have been the first of its kind issued by the NRC since 1987. But it
was nixed at the last minute by Sam Collins, the agencyís powerful
director of nuclear reactor regulation. By federal law, he is the
only government official authorized to shut down plants and sign
their operating licenses.
The inspector general claims Mr.
Collins allowed himself to be persuaded in late November by
financial concerns expressed by a top FirstEnergy official. Records
show he met in Washington with Bob Saunders, president of the
utilityís nuclear subsidiary, and that Mr. Collins informed other
NRC officials later that day of his decision to allow Davis-Besse to
keep operating until Feb. 16.
Mr. Collins has declined
numerous requests for interviews since the inspector generalís
report was released. Calls yesterday were referred to an agency
public affairs spokesman, who said she had no comment.
officials later learned, the corrosion on the reactor head at
Davis-Besse was much worse than expected: So much acid had leaked
out of those nozzles that it nearly ate a hole through the reactor
head. All that kept radioactive water inside the reactor from
blowing out into the concrete containment building that protects the
public was a paper-thin stainless steel liner - the industryís
biggest near-miss since the Three Mile Island accident in
"The report speaks for itself," said its author, George
Mulley, the inspector generalís senior level assistant for
The report focused on what the NRC
knew at the time it struck the compromise with FirstEnergy - not
information about the massive corrosion that has been learned since
the plant was idled. Both the NRC and FirstEnergy have stated
numerous times there is no way they would have allowed Davis-Besse
to keep operating if they had known the true extent of the
Dr. Meserve reiterated in his memo the NRCís
previously-stated explanation for letting the plant continue
operating until Feb. 16: because the regulatory agency believed the
risk to northwest Ohio was "acceptably small."
"The staff did
not know about the head corrosion at the time of its decision and,
quite frankly, it is Monday morning quarterbacking to question the
decision on [reactor-head nozzle] cracking in the false light of
subsequent knowledge," the chairman wrote.
Dr. Meserve, who
is stepping down in March to become president of the Carnegie
Institution in Washington, was not available for comment
David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the
Union of Concerned Scientists, said he was taken aback by the
chairmanís strong choice of words in his memo. "That is partly due
to the fact he is leaving," he said. "Thatís when you start thinking
of your legacy. Davis-Besse probably isnít what he wants to be part
of his legacy."
Mr. Lochbaumís group instigated the inspector
general report. A paper trail uncovered by that group and the
Nuclear Information and Resource Service was the "strongest case
Iíve seen in two decades" for shutting down a nuclear plant, he
He claimed the NRC had no business even waiting until
Dec. 31, 2001, to shut down the plant. Once technical justification
became strong enough that fall for the NRC to believe the nozzles
could be leaking, the agency was bound by law to shut down the plant
within six hours, but Mr. Collins chose to ignore the agencyís own
regulations, Mr. Lochbaum said.
He said he has studied
pre-accident conditions documented in such high-profile cases as
Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine. "None
has had such strong signals as Davis-Besse," Mr. Lochbaum
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) responded to the
inspector generalís findings last week by saying she will renew her
call for a congressional investigation into the NRCís oversight of
Davis-Besse. She was not available yesterday, but a spokesman in her
Washington office said she, too, was surprised by the tone of Dr.
Meserveís memo. "Itís rather unusual that the head of a department
would strike out against the inspector general like that," said the
spokesman, who asked not to be identified.
whether any investigation Miss Kaptur pursues will be separate from
one that the investigative arm of Congress, the U.S. General
Accounting Office, has recently agreed to undertake on behalf of
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland). Laura Kopelson, GAO
spokesman, said the scope of that investigation is still being
developed but confirmed Wednesday that one is forthcoming.
think itís very clear that the NRC and FirstEnergy work together to
put profits ahead of safety," said Doug Gorden, Mr. Kucinichís press
Richard Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman, has said
the utility places safety paramount to all other concerns. He
declined comment yesterday on Dr. Meserveís memo.
Bush is to nominate a successor to Dr. Meserve soon, with his choice
subject to Senate confirmation.
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