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NRC supervisor denies agency bias to FirstEnergy


John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

The suggestion that Nuclear Regulatory Commission managers "packed" a staff meeting to reach a decision favorable to FirstEnergy Corp. is just not true, said the veteran NRC supervisor who organized the caucus. After the meeting he recommended allowing the Davis-Besse reactor to delay a safety inspection.

"I think he mischaracterizes the meeting," said NRC associate licensing director Brian Sheron of the charge made by one of his analysts, Steven Long, in a sharply worded memo to the NRC's governing board that was made public last week.

"I did not designate who should be there," Sheron said of the all-afternoon staff meeting he called in late November 2001. That session came after the group listened to a last-ditch appeal from FirstEnergy that morning for permission to keep operating the plant until the middle of February.

The agency had been dealing with the company about the inspection issues since September, after FirstEnergy said it wanted to put off an examination for cracks in parts of the reactor lid until April during a refueling.

After crack problems were found at other plants, the NRC asked FirstEnergy and operators of 68 similar reactors to do the inspections by Dec. 31 or provide favorable results of previous inspections. The safety checks require the reactors to be shut down, which is costly.

Although the discussions and debate over Davis-Besse were later eclipsed by the discovery of a gaping rust hole in its reactor lid, they have remained an issue.

Watchdog groups have charged that the case was typical for an agency that often puts aside public safety for the convenience of the industry.

The NRC's Inspector General has ruled that the agency's top officials hamstrung themselves about whether they could issue the order and gave too much weight to the financial impact of an early shutdown.

Long said the agency had sufficient circumstantial evidence from similar plants to conclude Davis-Besse's lid was cracked and leaking.

Long's memo charged that there appeared to be more managers than analysts at the afternoon staff session, and that when Sheron asked for a show of hands on whether the NRC ought to order a shutdown, managers lined up on one side, staff on the other.

"These were the people who were at the morning meeting," Sheron said of the marathon staff caucus. "They were people who were involved in the review.

"The implication is that I was stacking the deck," Sheron said. "This was an important decision. Management gets involved in decisions, and that is the reason managers were in there."

As for the show of hands, Sheron said he was not conducting a vote but only trying to determine whether there was a consensus to order a shutdown.

That question and related issues were vigorously discussed until after 5 p.m. Finally, after seeing that there were too many conflicting viewpoints, he asked whether anyone believed Davis-Besse would have an accident if allowed to run until Feb. 16, as FirstEnergy had proposed. No one did.

Long said his belief that there would not likely be an accident did not mean he had no safety concerns about the plant.

Long is especially critical of the agency's use of a mathematical risk assessment process to determine the plant would not likely threaten the public if allowed to operate.

He said agency analysts did not have enough facts.

"That's Steve's opinion," Sheron said. "He is not the only materials expert on the staff."

"But at some point I had to make a decision," he said. "I couldn't get 100 percent. I had a majority of my staff telling me they believed the plant was safe."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4138

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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