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February 20, 2003


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Regional News | Article published Thursday, February 20, 2003
NRC exec took word of Besse’s owners


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.

"I wouldn’t 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 Scientists.

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.

But John Zwolinski, the NRC’s director of licensing and project management, questioned the faith his colleague, Mr. Collins, put in FirstEnergy.

"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 regulator."

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.

The 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.

FirstEnergy’s optimism 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 problem.

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 hindsight.

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 asked.

"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 said.

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.

The shutdown 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 »
Engineer says utility ignored rust 02/19/2003
Regulator flip-flopped on Davis-Besse shutdown 02/15/2003
FirstEnergy’s loss in quarter cuts ’02 profit 02/14/2003
Activist groups criticize plan to evacuate Davis-Besse 02/13/2003
Besse plans to restart with non-nuclear test 02/12/2003

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