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NRC watchdog issues warning on nuclear risks

02/14/03

Stephen Koff and Tom Diemer
Plain Dealer Bureau

Washington- The nuclear power industry and the agency that regulates it have gotten uncomfortably close to accepting too much risk at the nation's nuclear plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's inspector general told a Senate subcommittee yesterday.

Hubert Bell, the NRC's top internal watchdog, said that two problems at power plants in the last three years - one at Davis-Besse, the other at New York's In dian Point - were in stances "where it ap pears that both the industry and the NRC allowed higher risk to be assumed."

Asked by Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich if the nation's nuclear power plants are safe, Bell said they generally were. "I believe that on balance, however, the incidents at Indian Point and Davis-Besse indicate that we are moving closer to the undue-risk line. The line is moving closer [to] becoming unsafe."

NRC Chairman Richard Meserve disagreed, saying better analytical tools have allowed the agency to "assess the risks and make judgments in a more precise way than we were before. And," he said after the hearing, "where we believe things were overly conservative and unnecessary or imposing an undue burden, we back off. Where there is an insufficient focus, that's where we put our attention."

Bell, Meserve and the four other NRC commissioners appeared before Voinovich's subcommittee on clean air and nuclear power in the first congressional hearing to address Davis-Besse. Workers at the plant near Toledo found a pineapple-size rust hole in the reactor's lid in March, the result of leaking boric acid that was ignored by owner FirstEnergy Corp. and missed by NRC inspectors.

The hearing touched on other issues, including anti-terrorism measures and problems at Indian Point, north of New York City, where a steam generator tube ruptured and released a small amount of radiation in 2000. NRC inspectors had taken the plant's word that the tube was sound.

But Davis-Besse dominated the morning-long session, with Voinovich, the subcommittee chairman, still at the table asking for answers long after his colleagues left for other Senate business.

"I hope that you think we provide comfortable chairs for our witnesses," Voinovich told the commissioners at the start, "because you are going to be sitting in them again and again until this committee is absolutely assured that you have taken the necessary steps to prevent this kind of potential disaster from ever happening again."

Meserve and other commissioners acknowledged that the problems at Davis- Besse represented an "institutional failure" and noted that dozens of recommendations for improvements have resulted. Although the NRC continues to cut its staff and budget for inspections, commissioners maintain they have enough employees. If more inspectors turn out to be needed, they will be added, said Meserve, who is leaving to head the Carnegie Institution of Washington after March.

Yesterday's hearing was notable for the apparent harmony between Meserve and Bell on a key issue - and what seems to be a change of heart by Bell.

The inspector general had said last month that while NRC officials could have demanded that Davis- Besse be shut down in December 2001 because of fears of cracks and leaks, the agency gave FirstEnergy six extra weeks - out of concern that a shutdown might harm the company financially. The decision, Bell's report said, "was driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact on [FirstEnergy] that would result from an early shutdown."

At the time, Meserve angrily responded that his agency absolutely did not put FirstEnergy's financial concerns over safety.

Yet in his oral testimony yesterday, and in subsequent comments to reporters, Bell and a deputy took pains to say that the NRC never gave undue weight to how a shutdown order would affect FirstEnergy's finances.

"Our report did not say that the agency erred on the side of money over safety," Bell told Voinovich.

Meserve was pleased to hear that, as he pointed out to reporters.

"I think he did clarify something that was very helpful to hear him say," the chairman said.

Bell, however, also presented a different view yesterday - one consistent with his earlier report. In written testimony submitted, but not read, to Voinovich's subcommittee, Bell said that among other things, the NRC's decision to allow FirstEnergy to wait "was driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact on the licensee that would result from an early shutdown."

Asked by a reporter to reconcile his two statements, Bell added further confusion by denying that he ever said that concern for FirstEnergy drove the NRC's decision.

"We didn't say it was driven," he said. "All we did was kind of look at what the issues were and presented the issues."

The NRC continued to maintain yesterday that the public was never in any danger from the incident at Davis-Besse, despite this week's acknowledgement by FirstEnergy that its emergency cooling system might have been inadequate if the thin liner beneath the rust hole had burst.

"I can tell you, and I will stand by it: In no way was there any impending disaster," Commissioner Nils Diaz said outside the hearing room. Saying he was speaking as an expert - a nuclear engineer - not as a "bureaucrat," Diaz said: "There was no significant risk that I could see at those moments to the people of Ohio."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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