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NRC inspector had Davis-Besse evidence, watchdog group says NRC inspector knew

02/05/03

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

Washington - A nuclear watchdog group said yesterday that a government inspector had in his hands nearly three years ago evidence that the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor near Toledo was in alarming condition.

The Union of Concerned Scientists claimed that a Davis-Besse worker in April 2000 gave a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector a photo showing red rust streaming off the lid of the reactor along with six other photos. The inspector also received a plant report warning of leaking reactor coolant and a 1.5-inch- thick buildup of red-brown rust on the lid. It is unclear who the inspector was or what became of the photos and report.

David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the watchdog group, said a "reliable source" he would not reveal told him a plant employee handed the inspection documents to an NRC inspector auditing the plant.

Until now, the NRC has insisted that it didn't learn of the highly suspicious "red photo" until FirstEnergy Corp. officials turned it over to the agency in April 2002, as part of the inquiry launched after company workers stumbled upon a pineapple-size rust hole in the lid the month before.

NRC officials have said that if they had seen the alarming conditions in the photo earlier they would have sought an explanation from the company and possibly found the hole sooner.

Lochbaum passed out copies of the photos and report before a meeting of the NRC's governing board.

NRC officials confirmed that such an inspection took place in April 2000, but they were unable to say last night whether Lochbaum's claim was correct. "Our allegations people will have to look into it - who had, who saw it," said Viktoria Mitlyng, a spokeswoman for the agency's Midwest office.

The photo has been a source of embarrassment for FirstEnergy, which is under investigation for having failed to provide accurate and complete information to the NRC about the Davis-Besse lid.

In the past, FirstEnergy officials have said they did not provide the red photo to the NRC until last April, although a spokesman maintained it was in the company's files and "available" to the agency earlier. The spokesman, Todd Schneider, said last night he had "no knowledge" of the event Lochbaum described.

The photo flap was not discussed at yesterday's meeting. Instead, the agency's five commissioners spent more than three hours questioning top officials of FirstEnergy and the NRC itself on the progress the long-idled plant is making in its extensive equipment repairs and efforts to restore its deteriorated "safety culture."

The rust hole is one of the most serious events in the NRC's history, said NRC Chairman Richard Meserve. He told FirstEnergy executives that, although they have made progress, they must "reinvent" their business, which he called a "serious challenge."

FirstEnergy Chairman and CEO Peter Burg assured the commission that his company has learned its lesson and is making reforms that will ensure its managers never again place electricity production ahead of safety as they did at Davis-Besse.

Burg and his colleagues fielded numerous questions from NRC commissioners concerned about whether the changes intended to re-establish a safety-first culture will be permanent. FirstEnergy executives answered that their actions - from rewarding employees for catching safety problems to requiring that top managers regularly visit the plant floor - are lasting.

They promised that employee surveys and other methods to check worker safety attitudes will be adopted at all three of the company's nuclear plants.

Paul Gunter, an activist with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, who was invited to testify, rebuked the agency for allowing Davis-Besse to delay an inspection of its reactor lid in late 2001 that would have identified the rust hole several months sooner. Most of the commissioners rejected his criticism, saying he was biased and didn't understand the NRC's decision-making process.

To reach these reporters:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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