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Editorials

NRC cuts would be foolish

02/16/03


The discovery of a pineapple-sized hole in the lid of Davis Besse nuclear power plant last year demonstrates the need for more government oversight of nuclear reactors, not less.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission thinks otherwise. It's asking Congress for another shrunken safety and maintenance budget.

Although the proposed employee reductions are hardly draconian, they are nonetheless unacceptable. The NRC's proposed 2004 budget is $626 million, up from $585 million in 2003, with most of the money aimed at protecting reactors from terrorism.

That's important, but so is the safety of everyday operations. As submitted, the 2004 budget would chop the agency's main reactor licensing program, which works with plant operators. That's 31 of the 405 employees it expects to have by budget time.

In addition, the reactor inspector division would lose six of its 590 employees, and the reactor incident response group would lose three of its expected 34 employees.

And it's not the first time that the NRC has hacked away at the workers who help keep these reactors safe. Between 1998 and 2002, the agency sliced 79 employees from the worker inspection force.

Beth Hayden, an NRC spokeswoman, denied the commission is overlooking a NRC Lessons Learned Task Force report that blamed poor supervision at Davis-Besse on a shortage of regional workers and resources. She said the budget is created two years in advance and that once it's approved by Congress and the president, "then we may relook at those resources for any number of areas."

Sounds like the unprecedented damage to Davis-Besse is provoking a gigantic yawn in Washington. Well, wake up. The Lessons Learned report observes that the gaping hole within Davis-Besse's lid grew during a period when government regulators had been reduced to the bare minimum.

NRC Inspector General Hubert Bell told a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. George Voinovich that incidents at Davis-Besse and New York's Indian Point plant "indicate that we are moving closer to the undue-risk line."

And though there is still debate about what would have happened if acid had eaten through the thin stainless steel liner of Davis-Besse's lid, the FirstEnergy Corp. report in December revealed more disturbing news.

Experts now believe that the 26-year-old reactor's emergency cooling system had flaws that might have caused it to fail in a major accident.

Nuclear reactor safety cannot be left to chance, and the Davis-Besse situation shows that it can't be left to reactor operators, either. The NRC should beef up its shrinking nuclear inspector program without delay.


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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