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Ohio News

Report hits NRC decisions on Besse


John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had enough evidence to justify shutting down the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in late 2001 for safety concerns, but the agency let the reactor keep running largely because it didn't want to hurt owner FirstEnergy Corp. financially.

That finding - that the NRC let FirstEnergy's money concerns drive what was supposed to be a safety decision - is one of the main conclusions in a highly critical review by the agency's Office of Inspector General.

The document, obtained by The Plain Dealer before its public release, describes numerous flaws, misinterpretations, inconsistencies and unsupported conclusions in how the NRC responded to FirstEnergy's reluctance to shut down by Dec. 31, 2001, to inspect for suspected cracks and leaks in its reactor lid.

The agency struck a compromise with the company, allowing the Toledo-area plant to continue making electricity until Feb. 16.

Three weeks later, inspection workers found not only cracks, but a pineapple-size rust hole that breached the thick steel lid, caused by the corrosive leaking coolant.

It was the nation's closest brush with a major nuclear accident since Three Mile Island in 1979.

The inspector general's report singles out the NRC's top reactor safety official, Sam Collins, for his decision to let FirstEnergy delay the inspection. It notes Collins had "strong justification" to order that Davis-Besse cease operating, and that he had a promise from the company's nuclear division president for a voluntary pre-Dec. 31 shutdown if the NRC had lingering safety worries.

"The report is an illustration of how the NRC violated the public trust," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich. The Cleveland Democrat is a member of a congressional committee that oversees the agency.

"FirstEnergy and the NRC worked together to put profits above public safety. It's unacceptable," Kucinich said.

NRC Chairman Richard Meserve insisted yesterday that public safety, not corporate concerns, had dictated the agency's approval of the inspection delay.

"It's a nuanced issue," Meserve said of the need to strike a balance between being a safety-minded regulator and an overly burdensome one. "Safety in fact is our highest priority. We're fully prepared to issue [shutdown] orders if we think it's necessary to protect public safety. I don't want to necessarily disagree with the inspector general. You're faced with a situation where you had some uncertainty about conditions in the plant."

NRC staff members and managers made the right decision, based on the information they had at the time, he said. Meserve promised to respond to the report's findings within 90 days. Collins could not be reached for comment.

While the inspector general stopped short of saying the agency made the wrong decision, the report finds fault with much of the decision-making process:

The NRC gave undue consideration to its decision's impact on FirstEnergy and the nuclear industry. The agency's regulations allow its staff to take into account the financial costs of any order; however, the Inspector General concluded that the inspection delay went against the NRC's goal of making sure reactors like Davis-Besse at high risk for lid cracking were quickly checked.

The company wanted to shut down March 31, when it had already arranged for the people and equipment to do the special inspection as well as a planned reactor refueling. To halt production earlier would not only be costly but might cause power shortages in northwest Ohio, FirstEnergy officials told the NRC.

NRC managers and staff members seemed to buy the argument.

"It would clearly be punitive to shut a plant down and they sit there for a month waiting to obtain the correct inspection equipment," one senior manager e-mailed another in a message cited in the report.

The NRC "informally established an unreasonably high burden" of needing absolute proof of a safety problem to justify issuing a shutdown order. The problem with that logic, the report noted, was that the only way to get such proof was to order a shutdown for inspection.

The agency had enough evidence to conclude that Davis-Besse's lid was cracked and leaking, the report said. FirstEnergy's own estimates were that between one and nine metal sleeves on the lid were leaking.

Investigators found that the agency is reluctant to risk a legal battle over a shutdown order unless it has a "guaranteed win."

Moreover, an order was unnecessary, because Bob Saunders, president of FirstEnergy's nuclear division, had promised Collins that Davis-Besse would shut down without opposition if the NRC determined that it was necessary.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group whose complaint about the NRC's Davis-Besse decision launched the inspector general's investigation, said its findings demonstrate the need for reform at the agency.

While FirstEnergy has made many management changes in the wake of the rust hole debacle, the NRC has made none, said the group's David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer.

"They need to bring people in from the outside who aren't of the same mind-set and will bring fresh perspective and don't have baggage," he said.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:, 216-999-4138, 216-999-4842

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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