| Article published Thursday, February 20, 2003|
exec took word of Besse’s owners
BLADE STAFF WRITER
ROCKVILLE, Md. - The only Nuclear Regulatory
Commission official who can order a shutdown of the Davis-Besse
plant has admitted to federal investigators that he pushed aside
scientific evidence and relied on FirstEnergy Corp.’s word that it
was safe to continue operating the corroded reactor head until a
refueling outage in early 2002.
FirstEnergy "fought and
clawed every inch of the way" when NRC staffers wanted to shut down
the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in the fall of 2001, according to
transcripts of interviews conducted by investigators with the NRC’s
Office of Inspector General.
Sam Collins, the NRC’s nuclear
reactor regulation director and the only agency official who can
legally issue a shutdown order, told investigators that he had
relied on FirstEnergy’s word that it would have shut down the plant
itself if the company had ever gotten to the point of believing
Davis-Besse’s problems endangered public safety.
put undue emphasis on the [shutdown] order because Davis-Besse would
[have] shut that plant down without the order," Mr. Collins was
quoted as telling an investigator during an interview on Sept. 9,
2002. The assertion is included in interview transcripts obtained
under the federal Freedom of Information Act and made available by a
nuclear watchdog group called the Union of Concerned
Numerous NRC officials, including outgoing
Chairman Richard Meserve, have said the decision Mr. Collins made
was reasonable - based only on the information made available to Mr.
Collins at the time.
Mr. Collins, Mr. Meserve, and other NRC
officials have repeatedly stated there is no way the agency would
have allowed Davis-Besse to keep operating if they had known the
true extent of the massive corrosion problem there. The plant’s
reactor lid had a football-sized hole - the most significant rust
damage in U.S. nuclear history - and was so dilapidated it nearly
ruptured. Experts fear it could have caused an accident even bigger
than Three Mile Island in 1979.
Mr. Collins has declined
numerous requests from The Blade for comment.
Zwolinski, the NRC’s director of licensing and project management,
questioned the faith his colleague, Mr. Collins, put in
"How can [the NRC] have faith, trust, and
confidence we’ve gotten the right anything from that facility?" he
told investigators. "I mean, this kind of thing shakes me 100
percent. I mean, you simply can’t work that way with a
Nonetheless, FirstEnergy believes it adequately
informed the NRC throughout the ordeal, and it remains confident it
will soon get the agency’s authorization to restart the beleaguered
plant. Company spokesman Richard Wilkins said yesterday workers had
begun loading nuclear fuel into Davis-Besse’s reactor.
fuel-loading operation will keep the plant on track for a week-long
pressure test next month, which will be used to determine if the
bottom of the reactor has any leaks.
continues despite allegations raised in a federal whistleblower case
Tuesday that the company knew Davis-Besse’s reactor head was in bad
shape as early as 1998. The complaint, filed by a fired lead nuclear
engineer, claims FirstEnergy has misled the NRC about the extent of
The issue of FirstEnergy’s cooperation with the
NRC was examined in detail by the agency’s inspector general, who in
January issued a scathing report. It charged that the NRC breached
its safety mandate by letting itself be influenced by FirstEnergy’s
pleas that shutting the plant down as proposed on Dec. 31, 2001,
would have seriously hurt the utility financially. Mr. Meserve
responded by stating his agency did not have the benefit of
According to an interview transcript of one
unnamed NRC staffer, FirstEnergy "basically fought and clawed every
inch of the way" when the shutdown order was being contemplated in
the fall of 2001. Besides reduced energy production, the company’s
perseverance to keep operating Davis-Besse was motivated by a belief
it would get a "black eye" in the industry that could affect its
financial rating, the staffer testified.
The same staffer
claimed a reduced operating temperature and other measures taken by
FirstEnergy to provide an extra safety margin during the final six
weeks of operation were "window dressing" because their scientific
benefits were "essentially nothing."
Mr. Zwolinski compared
FirstEnergy’s decision to fight the Davis-Besse shutdown order to
the cooperation the NRC received from Virginia-based Dominion
Energy. Faced with a similar set of circumstances in the fall of
2001, Dominion voluntarily agreed to shut down its North Anna and
Surry nuclear plants in Virginia to check for reactor-head nozzle
cracks - an example which Mr. Zwolinski lauded as the "right thing"
because it was proactive.
"And would you say that Davis-Besse
didn’t choose to do the right thing?" an investigator
"Confronted with the evidence that we had other like
plants ... I would say that they did not choose to do the right
thing, regardless of how everything has turned out," Mr. Zwolinski
Several NRC staffers interviewed by the investigators
made references to communication between the NRC and congressional
leaders. U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) and U.S. Rep. Paul
Gillmor (R., Old Fort) were mentioned by name - but George Mulley,
the author of the inspector general’s report, told The Blade there
is no evidence that any politician wielded undue influence over the
NRC in regard to the proposed shutdown order.
order was proposed by NRC staffers, approved by agency lawyers, and
sent up the chain-of-command, but Mr. Collins refused to execute it.
The inspector general’s report has accused him of falling prey to
FirstEnergy’s financial pleas after meeting with Bob Saunders,
president of FirstEnergy’s nuclear subsidiary.
|More articles on this subject »|