| Article published Thursday, March 13, 2003|
Deregulation called factor in Besse lapse
ROCKVILLE, Md. - The Nuclear Regulatory
Commission’s reluctance to enforce a shutdown order it had prepared
for Davis-Besse in the fall of 2001 helps illustrate how the burden
of proof for safety issues has shifted from utilities to the
government under deregulation, according to a nuclear safety
David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned
Scientists said yesterday the decision made at the NRC’s
headquarters here on Nov. 28, 2001, would not have happened years
ago if the agency had an inkling of a serious problem emerging at a
He cited a 32-page transcript of a March 13,
1979, news conference, two weeks before the Three Mile Island
accident, in which the NRC immediately ordered repairs at five
nuclear plants deemed vulnerable to having some computers
malfunction in the event of an earthquake.
nuclear reactor regulation director at the time, Harold Denton, said
he feared earthquakes could affect not only piping systems, but also
the emergency core cooling systems if such malfunctions occurred.
Four of the potentially affected plants were already shut down.
Beaver Valley 1, west of Pittsburgh, immediately went offline
without challenging the NRC order.
Contrast that to the
stalemate the NRC was locked in with Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.
in the fall of 2001, when Davis-Besse was one of a dozen plants
deemed most vulnerable to having circumferential cracks in their
reactor-head nozzles, Mr. Lochbaum said.
cracks in reactor-head nozzles had never been seen in the United
States until early 2001 at the Oconee complex in South Carolina. The
NRC considered them especially dangerous at high-pressure plants
like Davis-Besse, because the ends could pop off like champagne
corks. That would allow radioactive steam to form in the containment
building, officials have said.
FirstEnergy, which now owns
both Beaver Valley plants as well as Davis-Besse, refused to shut
down Davis-Besse in the fall of 2001 when the NRC claimed it
suspected a problem. According to interview transcripts of
depositions, some NRC employees feared the agency would be sued if
it enforced a shutdown order written for Dec. 31,
Ultimately, Sam Collins - who now serves as the
agency’s nuclear reactor regulation director - refused to execute
the shutdown order and let Davis-Besse keep operating until Feb. 16,
2002. The problem surpassed everyone’s fears on March 6, 2002 when a
football-sized cavity was found in Davis-Besse’s reactor head,
exposing all but a thin liner that had started to buckle and
The fine line of how the NRC perceives its regulatory
power was discussed in January in a report issued by the NRC’s
Office of Inspector General. The report claimed the NRC talked
itself out of issuing the shutdown order, in part because
deregulation has clouded its authority.
"Since the early
1990s, the U.S. electric industry has moved away from traditional
rate-based regulation toward increased competition in a deregulated
marketplace. Prior to deregulation, a power producer could pass on
most of its costs to consumers, including costs associated with a
forced shutdown by a federal regulator," the report
"Under today’s deregulation, more costs are borne by
the corporate shareholders rather than the consumers, and utilities
seek to keep these costs low," it said. "During this same time
period, [the] NRC established as one of its performance goals the
reduction of unnecessary regulatory burden."