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NRC chief says Davis-Besse didn't endanger public

04/17/03

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

Washington, D.C. - Although the rust hole that festered unnoticed for years on the lid of the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor represents "an enormous failure" in plant management and government oversight, Ohioans were never endangered by those gaffes, the new chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said yesterday.

"The only good thing to be said about the Davis-Besse event was that it was an incident and not an accident," said Nils Diaz, a Cuba native whom President Bush appointed this month to run the agency's governing board.

Much of Diaz's inaugural remarks to an audience of 1,200 plant operators, nuclear industry lobbyists and NRC staff members at an annual conference on regulatory issues dealt with Davis-Besse and its aftermath.

The chairman said he wants the agency to focus on what he calls "realistic conservatism" - concentrating its limited regulatory resources on nuclear power issues for which risk is proven, not conjectured. He also wants the NRC to give the nuclear industry room for "flexibility and innovation," rather than dictating how to achieve safety goals.

Nuclear safety activists said Diaz's philosophy bodes ill for the NRC and for the public.

"It gives me grave concern for the direc tion of the agency if the chairman can't recog nize that the hole in the (lid) posed a threat to the public," said Jim Riccio of Greenpeace. Under Diaz's approach, "the nuclear industry is exposed to less regulation and the public is exposed to more risk."

While Diaz acknowledged that the pineapple-size rust hole, which has cost plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. about $400 million, was the result of a breakdown in vigilance by the NRC and FirstEnergy, "I want to say equally loudly and clearly that it was not close to being the impending disaster [being] publicly portrayed."

The news media's tendency to "hype up" stories about nuclear power and the public's inability to understand what does and doesn't pose a legitimate risk made it seem that Davis-Besse was a greater threat than it was, Diaz contended.

"Frankly, it sounds counterintuitive to say that public health was not at imminent risk," he said. "It sounds as though a hole in the reactor [lid] should automatically mean that the public was endangered. As a nuclear engineer and as a regulator, I know otherwise."

The reactor's 6.5-inch-thick lid was rusted through, and only a thin stainless steel liner meant as a corrosion barrier kept thousands of gallons of radioactive, high-pressure coolant from jetting out. Diaz said the liner, "thin as it was, was more than adequate" to contain the vital coolant and "would have done so for quite a while." The plant's emergency systems and the reactor operators' training added further protection, he said.

An NRC analysis concluded that, had Davis-Besse ended its refueling shutdown last spring without finding the rust hole, the cracked, uneven, slightly bulging liner could have ruptured in as few as one to two years.

The plant's emergency reactor cooling system also could have failed in certain accident conditions because of flaws that FirstEnergy's engineering reviews have recently found.

"If you call possibly breaking the reactor vessel in the next [two-year] operating cycle insignificant, then you are underestimating the risk to the public," said Paul Gunter, of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a watchdog group.

Talk of Davis-Besse dominated much of the first day of the three-day conference, at which the regulators and regulated get a chance to discuss current nuclear power issues. While so much exposure of Davis-Besse's faults in front of their peers was painful at times, FirstEnergy Corp. officials said Diaz's comments were a welcome dose of candor and common sense.

"I really like his thought process," said FirstEnergy nuclear division chief Lew Myers, who was a student of Diaz at the University of Florida. "We didn't have an event, we had an issue. Is it serious? Yes. If we'd implemented our processes right, had the right management focus, we would have found it a lot earlier."

Having those failures diagnosed by fellow plant operators "is painful - it makes you want to cry." But "hopefully, this has done something for the industry," said Myers, who has given talks to other utilities about the lessons of Davis-Besse. "I see the attention this is getting, causing them to reassess 'Could this happen to me?' "

At sessions today, conference attendees will hear how the NRC is planning to revise its inspection process to improve the chances of catching lapses like those at Davis-Besse. In the months before the rust hole was found, the plant had gotten good marks from the agency as well as from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the industry's quality assessment arm.

"We missed some important conclusions from what our observations were telling us at Davis-Besse," said George Felgate, INPO vice president for analysis.

For full coverage of Davis-Besse, go to www.cleveland.com/davisbesse/

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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