Article published Thursday, April 17, 2003|
Davis-Besse ‘failure’ cited at global
By TOM HENRY
WASHINGTON - The official who President Bush
put in charge of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said yesterday
that Davis-Besse’s extensively damaged reactor head was caused by an
"enormous failure" in judgment by FirstEnergy Corp. and the
Speaking to his largest audience since taking over the
agency on April 1, NRC Chairman Nils J. Diaz told 1,200 people from
15 countries here that oversight breakdowns, such as the one
documented at Davis-Besse, cannot ever be tolerated
Although the unprecedented corrosion and other
identified problems did not result in a nuclear accident, they
exposed weaknesses in the NRC’s ability to regulate the industry,
Dr. Diaz said.
"It was an enormous failure on the part of the
licensee and the NRC. I want to say that loud and clear. It was an
enormous failure," he said.
Dr. Diaz made his comments during
a 90-minute presentation that began the NRC’s 15th annual Regulatory
The three-day event, at the Capital
Hilton, has brought together representatives of government,
industry, and advocacy groups to discuss issues ranging from
homeland security to radioactive waste
Davis-Besse’s problems are clearly among those
under the national spotlight. The plant was brought up repeatedly in
sessions yesterday, including one about the safety culture in
nuclear workforces. It also was discussed in one about metal fatigue
and aging equipment. This morning, Davis-Besse will be the focus of
a separate 90-minute panel.
Halfway through his presentation,
Dr. Diaz left little doubt that the Davis-Besse saga has risen to
national prominence as the aging nuclear industry strives to become
a bigger part of America’s growing energy picture.
is anyone here who doesn’t know about the hole in the pressure
vessel at Davis-Besse, they probably wandered into the wrong hall by
mistake," Dr. Diaz said as he shifted the focus of his speech to the
Although bothered by the oversight lapse, the new NRC
chairman said he believes Davis-Besse’s severely dilapidated
condition "was not an impending disaster."
Dr. Diaz said he
is confident FirstEnergy would have noticed a significant drop in
pressure if a major rupture had occurred while the plant was
The company, in turn, should have been able to
shut down the plant before the steel containment structure got
filled with radioactive steam. That would have resulted in a costly
mess, but perhaps not an imminent threat to the public, Dr. Diaz
said. But, he added: "I definitely do not want to have the need to
depend upon the containment."
Lew Myers, chief operating
officer of FirstEnergy’s nuclear subsidiary who is attending the
conference, told The Blade he agreed with Dr. Diaz’
"If we had done a better job with inspections, we
wouldn’t be sitting here today," Mr. Myers said. "I find it
difficult to imagine we did not find this
Davis-Besse has not operated since it was shut down
for refueling on Feb. 16, 2002.
A six-inch cavity was found
in the reactor head three weeks later, the result of acid in coolant
water that had presumably leaked out of the reactor and burned its
way through carbon steel. The only thing holding back the reactor’s
intense pressure was a stainless steel liner two-tenths of an inch
thick. It had started to buckle and crack, and was not engineered to
be used for anything other than corrosion control, NRC officials
NRC officials have for months described the
situation as the nation’s worst rust problem of its kind, a
maintenance letdown that put northwest Ohio on the brink of an
accident akin to the one at Three Mile Island.
In a brief
interview with The Blade, Dr. Diaz said he is in full agreement with
how his predecessor, Dr. Richard Meserve, responded to a
controversial report about Davis-Besse that came out in
In that report, the NRC’s own inspector general,
Hubert T. Bell, accused the agency of letting FirstEnergy get away
with putting profits ahead of safety. Dr. Meserve accused the
inspector general of issuing a biased, misleading, and unfair
A high-profile watchdog, Paul Gunter of the Nuclear
Information & Resource Service, said Dr. Diaz must recognize the
NRC had a role in helping the company put profits ahead of safety -
or else it is business as usual at the agency. "This agency turned a
blind eye on inspections and maintenance at Davis-Besse," Mr. Gunter
The 26-year-old plant is one of many in which companies
are scrambling to replace aging equipment before it breaks down, he
One NRC researcher, Michael Mayfield, said the agency
is trying to get better at anticipating problems before they
Mr. Gunter said the public needs a more proactive NRC.
Otherwise, safety seems more reliant on "a roll of the dice than
effective regulation," he said.
Dr. Diaz said he does not
want business as usual at the NRC while he’s chairman.
said he wants the agency to keep in mind real-life performances of
utilities as it adopts new regulations, instead of just relying on
perceived safety risks.
Davis-Besse’s performance is "a small
part" of his decision to think that way because the oversight
letdown allowed the safety margin to be unnecessarily decreased, he
For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to