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January 15, 2003


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Regional News | Article published Saturday, January 11, 2003
Debate emerges over NRC official
Regulator accused of ignoring safety


WASHINGTON - A debate has quietly emerged about the possible future of a senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission official accused of pushing aside safety warnings at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in favor of letting the plant operate until last Feb. 16.

Ohio Citizen Action is calling for the ouster of Sam Collins, the NRC’s powerful nuclear reactor regulation director, in light of a NRC Inspector General report that claims he put profits ahead of safety by not following through with a rare government shutdown order that his staff recommended and agency attorneys approved.

The Atomic Energy Act gives the NRC’s nuclear reactor regulation director final authority in signing nuclear plant licenses and in issuing orders to shut down the plants.

"When people’s lives are in danger, I think that calls for termination of his employment," Amy Ryder, of Ohio Citizen Action, said in explaining the group’s rationale.

Yet several of the NRC’s harshest critics - including U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) - question whether the NRC should do anything but reassign Mr. Collins, fearing that dismissing him could distract from what they perceive as the larger issue at hand - the NRC’s admitted oversight problems.

A recent Inspector General survey shows many NRC employees are reluctant to come forward with their concerns.

Miss Kaptur said she wants a congressional probe of the NRC’s effectiveness.

Terry Lodge, Toledo Coalition for Safe Energy spokesman, said he agrees Mr. Collins’ dismissal would be a starting point. "But my concern is that if they sacrifice one lamb, that the greater problem remains unresolved," he said.

One of the most surprising responses came from Paul Gunter, of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, who has demanded at numerous public meetings that Mr. Collins be held accountable for documenting little about his decision and taking so long to provide anything.

It wasn’t until Dec. 4 - more than a year after the decision was made in late November of 2001 to let Davis-Besse keep operating until last Feb. 16 - that the agency finally put its justification in writing.

Its report claimed it thought it had put northwest Ohio at only an "acceptably small" risk.

"Clearly, Sam has his fingerprints all over this," Mr. Gunter said. "[But] frankly, I don’t think a simple firing is going to change this management culture."

FirstEnergy Corp. had been planning to shut down Davis-Besse last March for normal refueling. The NRC staff drafted a shutdown order for Dec. 31, 2001, because it feared the plant’s reactor-head nozzles were cracked and leaking. The reality was worse: Davis-Besse’s reactor head had become the most dilapidated in the nation.

The Feb. 16 date was viewed by skeptics as a halfway compromise - a date that Mr. Collins agreed to after hearing financial pleas from Bob Saunders, president of the utility’s nuclear subsidiary, NRC records show.

Mr. Collins has refused requests for interviews. Beth Hayden, NRC spokesman, said the agency has no comment.

Outgoing NRC Chairman Richard Meserve has defended his agency’s performance and said he has no immediate plans for personnel changes.

Toledo lawyer Howard Whitcomb, a former NRC resident inspector in South Carolina hired by Toledo Edison in the mid 1980s to examine Davis-Besse safety issues, said he is "absolutely disgusted by the way we have had the NRC stand before us for months and slay FirstEnergy the way they have, knowing they had the same problems in their ranks."

Thursday night, Mr. Whitcomb sent a four-page letter - accompanied by numerous documents - about his concerns to Dr. George Apostolakis, chairman of the NRC’s advisory committee on reactor safeguards. ACRS is an independent panel of scientists that scrutinizes the NRC’s work and makes policy recommendations.

In his packet, copies of which were distributed to several members of Congress, Mr. Whitcomb claims that safety concerns he has documented at Davis-Besse since the mid 1980s have been largely ignored by the NRC.

He said he has "yet to receive a meaningful response" from Dr. Meserve about allegations he submitted last May 20 about the reactor-head probe.

Mr. Whitcomb said he wants ACRS to demand that Jack Grobe, reactor safety division director for the NRC’s Midwest region, be removed as chairman of the agency’s Davis-Besse oversight panel.

Mr. Whitcomb accused Mr. Grobe of failing to act on numerous other Davis-Besse allegations in the past.

Mr. Whitcomb also said the findings of the agency’s "Lessons Learned Task Force" should be invalidated because it failed to take into account past surveys of NRC employees and their alleged reluctance to be forthcoming about problems.

The task force cited several NRC shortcomings in a report issued Oct. 9, but Mr. Whitcomb and others have questioned whether it went far enough.

"The public currently has no legitimate basis upon which it can trust that the NRC and utility managements will not conduct their future affairs in a manner similar to that demonstrated in November, 2001, in which production matters were given higher priority than the health, safety, and welfare of the general public," Mr. Whitcomb wrote.

More articles on this subject »
NRC admits lengthy timetable for implementing safety reforms 01/15/2003
NRC frets about plant attitudes 01/15/2003
Outgoing chief of NRC decries critical report 01/10/2003
No fines likely in radiation exposure 01/08/2003
Taft asks NRC for full briefing before startup 01/07/2003

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