| Article published Friday, April 18, 2003|
NRC official defends Davis-Besse
By TOM HENRY
WASHINGTON - One of the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission’s most powerful directors broke his silence with the
media by telling The Blade here yesterday he stands behind his
controversial decision to set aside the shutdown order his staff had
prepared for Davis-Besse in the fall of 2001.
the NRC’s nuclear reactor regulation director, said his decision was
reasonable, based strictly on what he knew at the time and despite
harsh criticism that was leveled against him by the agency’s
inspector general in January.
Meanwhile, two more members of
the NRC’s governing board - Commissioners Edward McGaffigan, Jr.,
and Jeffrey Merrifield - singled out Davis-Besse as one of the
agency’s worst examples of complacency.
Plus, The Blade has
learned the NRC soon will hire a third resident inspector for
Davis-Besse - a sign that the agency, admittedly embarrassed by its
performance there, could have a greater on-site presence for
The developments unfolded during the second day of the
NRC’s 15th annual Regulatory Information Conference, where 1,200
people from 15 countries have gathered to discuss nuclear
Davis-Besse remained one of the hottest topics. The
massive head degradation, blamed on a combined oversight lapse by
FirstEnergy Corp. and the NRC, was "the singularly largest event
that has occurred in the past year," Mr. McGaffigan said. Mr.
Merrifield went so far as to tell The Blade it’s the "most
significant problem we’ve had in a number of years."
on the NRC’s five-member board, which has one vacancy with the term
of another commissioner expiring June 30. Chairman Nils Diaz on
Wednesday called the lapse "an enormous failure."
is the only plant at this year’s conference with a panel devoted to
it. That session was moderated yesterday by Mr. Collins, the NRC
director who turned away an order that staffers, citing safety
concerns, had drafted in November, 2001 to shut down Davis-Besse no
later than Dec. 31 of that year.
Some senior NRC officials
have described the order as a negotiating ploy to let FirstEnergy
know the agency was committed to investigating a potentially serious
issue: Hairline cracks that can weaken as many as 69 nozzles welded
into the reactor head.
Their fears were limited at the time
to the possibility of finding a few of those tiny flaws - not
massive corrosion that threatened the integrity of the multi-ton
reactor head itself.
Mr. Collins came under fire for setting
aside the shutdown order and letting the plant operate until Feb.
16, 2002. Unbeknownst to him and others, that allowed Davis-Besse to
operate six weeks longer with a reactor head that had been so
weakened by rust over the years that part of the lid had started to
buckle and crack.
Davis-Besse was supposed to keep operating
until March 31, 2002. By meeting the company halfway on the shutdown
date, the NRC was accused of compromising safety to avoid a possible
Shutdown orders are rare: Davis-Besse’s was the
first the NRC had drafted since 1987. Some utilities contest them,
because they stand to lose millions of dollars if plants are shut
early. A company’s financial rating also can be hurt if investors
interpret an early shutdown as a sign of trouble, officials have
Mr. Collins had declined numerous requests for
interviews since the inspector general’s report was issued nearly
31/2 months ago. But he opened yesterday’s Davis-Besse panel by
saying "many of us have been touched by this issue in many
He later told The Blade that, without the benefit of
hindsight, he would not have made a different decision about the
shutdown order. But he wished he had that benefit of hindsight. "I’m
accountable for the [reactor oversight] program," he
The corrosion, the worst in U.S. nuclear history, was
found March 6, 2002, three weeks after the plant shut
Mr. Collins was reluctant to speculate what might
happen if the NRC is ever faced again with identical
"I think we would apply the experiences
learned from Davis-Besse to future decisions," he said.
inspector general’s latest investigation is about whether the NRC’s
Midwest regional office kept the agency’s headquarters in the dark
about Davis-Besse’s corrosion. The probe is looking into allegations
about the NRC’s knowledge of photos showing heavy rust stains on
Davis-Besse’s reactor head as early as 1998 and
For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to