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April 18, 2003

 



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Regional News | Article published Friday, April 18, 2003
NRC official defends Davis-Besse decision

By
BLADE STAFF WRITER


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.

Sam Collins, 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 years.

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 issues.

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."

Both are 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."

Davis-Besse 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 lawsuit.

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 said.

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 forms."

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 said.

The corrosion, the worst in U.S. nuclear history, was found March 6, 2002, three weeks after the plant shut down.

Mr. Collins was reluctant to speculate what might happen if the NRC is ever faced again with identical circumstances.

"I think we would apply the experiences learned from Davis-Besse to future decisions," he said.

The 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 2000.

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse




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