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NRC budgets less cash for reactor safety inspections

02/05/03

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington- Though political pressure is rising over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's failed oversight of the Davis-Besse power plant, the NRC says it wants to spend less - not more - on safety inspections at the nation's nuclear plants.

"It's incomprehensible," Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Cleveland, said when told of the proposed cuts to the NRC's safety inspection budget. The agency disclosed its proposal in a briefing yesterday with The Plain Dealer and a reporter for a nuclear industry trade publication.

A spokesman for Sen. George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, said he, too, would like to know the NRC's rationale for the cuts. "At first blush, it seems to be surprising news," said the spokesman, Scott Milburn, whose boss is planning a Senate committee hearing soon on the NRC's lapses at Davis-Besse, near Toledo.

The NRC's overall spending would actually rise under its budget proposal for 2004, from $585 million to $626 million. But the increases would primarily be for security against terrorist strikes, review of new reactor designs and several other NRC priorities.

The agency's main reactor licensing program - which handles most day-to-day dealings with nuclear power plants - would take a 6.4 percent hit, from $57.9 million to $54.1 million. That would mean 31 fewer employees, the NRC estimates.

The NRC's reactor inspection division would lose six employees after its $73.6 million budget was cut by 0.6 percent. And under this budget, the reactor incident response group would lose three workers when its $7.5 million allocation got chopped by 15 percent, according to budget documents.

NRC officials maintain that less, in this case, would mean more because of "efficiencies in the inspection process," according to their 271-page budget proposal.

But that philosophy appears to go directly against the admonishment of a special NRC task force on Davis-Besse. The Lessons Learned Task Force concluded that "regional staffing and resource issues challenged the NRC's ability to provide effective regulatory oversight" at the Ohio plant.

The NRC was caught off-guard last March when workers at Davis-Besse discovered an unprecedented, pineapple-size hole in the reactor lid, created over several years by leaking boric acid. Boric acid helps control the nuclear reaction.

Both the NRC's Lessons Learned Task Force and a separate NRC inspector general's report rapped the agency's handling of Davis-Besse, and members of Congress have called for hearings and requested a General Accounting Office investigation. There also are calls for revocation of owner FirstEnergy Corp.'s operating license and shuttering of the plant until its safe operation is assured. FirstEnergy is working on repairs and hopes to restart Davis-Besse in the coming months, though it will need NRC permission.

Told that the NRC wants to reduce the number of inspectors, David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists, said, "From the Lessons Learned Task Force report, that was one area they thought needed to be improved. So they're going to do it with fewer people, I guess."

But he quipped, "You make fewer mistakes with fewer people."

The proposed cuts could be reversed by Congress. But the NRC has now tried to shave the number of inspectors and other staff for two years straight, budget records show. With Congress behind schedule, however, the 2003 budget - with its attendant reductions - has not yet been approved and the NRC is operating at 2002 spending levels.

An NRC spokeswoman last night suggested the NRC could wind up amending its latest request - even though the request is brand-new. "When we put the 2004 budget together, it was before we realized the full brunt of Davis-Besse," said spokeswoman Beth Hayden, who said the staff starts preparing budgets several years in advance.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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