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Davis-Besse failure linked to new rules

05/16/03

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington- When nuclear regulators fixed blame for failing to notice that there was a hole in the lid of the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio, they spent little time criticizing the role played by their new oversight rules.

Those rules, seeking to reduce overly burdensome regulations, in 2000 replaced the subjective, nit-picky set of guidelines that had governed power plant inspections for years.

But documents obtained by a watchdog group show that a special Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force last year had in fact intended to blame the new regulatory system in part for the slipshod inspections at Davis-Besse. Before the task force's report was complete, however, NRC staff had removed a section on the shortcomings of the NRC's new reactor oversight process.

The final report - an indictment on the agency and plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. - did list possible improvement to the oversight process. But it was far less sweeping and less critical than the earlier suggestions.

The NRC thus avoided the public criticism that most likely would have resulted if it had more clearly linked the Davis-Besse failure to weaknesses in its new regulatory regimen. And, says Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace, the omissions resulted in NRC commissioners getting an incomplete and sanitized assessment of the agency's failure at Davis-Besse.

"Since the implementation of the new oversight process, NRC senior management has continued to scuttle efforts of its own staff to regulate the industry and has allowed reactors to operate to the point of breakdown," Riccio told a meeting of NRC commissioners yesterday.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Cleveland Democrat who has criticized the NRC's handling of Davis-Besse, said later in a telephone interview that the omissions are "further evidence that the NRC continues to brush aside safety concerns.

"They're more interested in power plant profits," Kucinich said.

NRC commissioners reject those criticisms. They said they do not know why changes were made to the task force report, but they assumed there were good reasons such as staff disagreements. They also thought the new regulatory system was an improvement that will continually evolve.

"I believe I am so far apart from where you are that it's not even funny," NRC Chairman Nils Diaz told Riccio.

Workers at Davis-Besse, near Toledo, discovered a pineapple-size hole in the lid of the reactor in March 2002, leaving only a thin, cracked liner to protect the reactor. The NRC assigned a task force to examine how the NRC and industry failed to notice that boric acid corrosion had been accumulating on the lid for years. The Lessons Learned Task Force issued its report on Sept. 30.

Riccio, using the Freedom of Information Act, recently obtained unreleased drafts of the report from last August and noticed that material had been left out of the final version. Yesterday, he asked the NRC's inspector general to investigate the omissions. William Travers, NRC executive director for operations, said that while the agency itself will also look at the matter, the inspector general typically would take the lead in determining whether something improper had occurred.

Arthur Howell, the Texas-based NRC official who headed the Davis-Besse Lessons Learned Task Force, said through a spokesman that material was excluded from the report because it fell outside the scope of the task force's mission. The spokesman said Howell was not available to discuss the specific scope of the task force's work.

In its final report, the task force stated an objective that was exceptionally broad: to independently evaluate the NRC's regulatory processes "in order to identify and recommend areas for improvement that may be applicable to either the NRC or the nuclear industry."

The NRC changed the way it regulates in recent years, fully adapting in 2000 a new approach to guide its plant inspections, shut-down orders and report cards on nuclear plant safety.

This occurred after nuclear plant owners complained to Congress in the 1990s that the NRC was arbitrarily citing them for picayune violations with little bearing on safety. Congress threatened to decimate the NRC's budget unless it backed off.

Even NRC critics agreed the old system left too much leeway for NRC staff interpretation. But some say the new system goes overboard in the other direction, and drafts of the Lessons Learned report show some NRC staff agree.

The new oversight process mandates inspection of reactor systems and components that are most prone to failure, as determined by agency experience and engineering and mathematical modeling. Some NRC inspectors consider the oversight regimen to be too rigid, with checklists guiding inspections of only certain systems - and excluding, until now, passive systems such as reactor lids.

Unless a suspicious condition is deemed clearly dangerous, the new process doesn't allow the implementation of other than routine inspections, a draft of the lessons-learned report said.

"The new oversight process does not regulate the industry, it regulates the agency," Riccio told the commissioners, adding that it "handcuffs" NRC regional inspectors.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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