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January 26, 2003


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Regional News | Article published Sunday, January 26, 2003
Whos’ minding nuclear store?
NRC’s ability to police itself is questioned
Red, rusty deposits on this nuclear reactor vessel flange at Davis-Besse are caused by leaking boric acid.
 View pictures of the day


WASHINGTON - A recent probe which questioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s commitment to safety at FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant is hardly the first time in which government investigators have raised doubts about the agency’s oversight.

While serving as chairman of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Governmental Affairs, former U.S. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio told colleagues he had been presented evidence which showed the NRC had "serious deficiencies" in its ability to police itself because of its relationship with the nuclear industry. Mr. Glenn introduced a bill on April 3, 1987, that ultimately led to the creation of the NRC’s Office of Inspector General.

"This is not a trivial matter. This committee has discovered evidence which suggests improper communications between the NRC and licensees concerning the NRC’s regulatory activities. And the evidence further suggests that the NRC has been incapable of policing such misconduct on its own," according to a transcript of Mr. Glenn’s opening remarks while addressing the committee six days after his bill was introduced. "After all, the NRC is supposed to be a watchdog, not a lapdog."

A paper trail of government documents reviewed by The Blade shows other instances in which the NRC’s credibility in regulating nuclear plants has come under question, including:

w A December, 1987, House subcommittee report entitled "NRC Coziness With Industry," in which government investigators concluded the agency had failed to keep an arm’s length relationship from the industry it was assigned to regulate.

"Over the past several years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has demonstrated an unhealthy empathy for the needs of the nuclear industry to the detriment of the safety of the American people," according to the report, written for the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. "On a number of occasions, the NRC has acted as if it were the advocate for, and not the regulator of, the nuclear industry."

Those who received that report included Vice President Dick Cheney, then a congressman from Wyoming; former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, then a congressman from New Mexico and now governor of that state; and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of the NRC’s most outspoken critics. All were committee members back then.

w A May, 1997, report by the U.S. General Accounting Office - the investigative arm of Congress - which claimed conditions at the nation’s nuclear plants had worsened because of lax oversight by the NRC.

"There are a number of instances in which [the] NRC has neither taken aggressive enforcement action nor held nuclear plant licensees accountable for correcting their problems on a timely basis," the report said.

w An August, 2000, report by the inspector general which accused the NRC of failing to do adequate reviews of a steam generator tube problem at the Indian Point 2 nuclear plant in New York in 1997. Those tubes are made of a metal known as Alloy 600, the same type in Davis-Besse’s reactor head. Lab tests over the years have shown the alloy is much more susceptible to cracking than originally thought. The Indian Point 2 plant experienced a slight release of radioactive steam on Feb. 15, 2000, after one of its steam-generator tubes ruptured.

w A Nov. 18, 2002, memo from the inspector general which claimed the NRC faces numerous management challenges, including communication. While acknowledging that improvements have been made, the inspector general urged greater attention to this area because of the likelihood that more "unanticipated events" will occur.

"A recent example is the corrosion of the reactor vessel at Davis-Besse," the memo stated.

That memo drew little attention - but a report issued five weeks later by that same office sent reverberations throughout the agency and drew a response from outgoing NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, which has been called nearly unprecedented in its tone.

That report, issued by the inspector general on Jan. 3, accused the NRC of violating public trust by putting profits ahead of safety - a fundamental breach of the agency’s mandate.

The inspector general claimed the NRC’s decision on Nov. 28, 2001, to back down from a shutdown order for Davis-Besse was "driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact" on FirstEnergy. The utility had successfully negotiated Feb. 16, 2002, as the shutdown date for Davis-Besse.

The NRC order had called for the shutdown to occur no later than Dec. 31, 2001, because of fears that the plant’s reactor-head nozzles were cracked and leaking. The actual problem turned out to be much worse: Davis-Besse nearly had a hole in its six-inch-thick reactor head, a vital safety feature.

Dr. Meserve vehemently denied the inspector general’s allegations, saying that financial considerations did not factor into the decision.

Jack Grobe - reactor safety chief of the NRC’s Midwestern region - told reporters on Jan. 14 that he stood "100 percent" behind Dr. Meserve’s remarks and was pleased by the chairman’s tone. "The issue wasn’t whether [Davis-Besse’s reactor-head nozzles] were leaking. It was whether the plant was safe to operate, based on what we knew at the time," Mr. Grobe said.

The inspector general’s report cited a complicating factor: The NRC’s flexibility in allowing utilities nationwide to find more cost-effective ways of meeting safety standards. That shift occurred as the industry became deregulated in the 1990s, because more maintenance costs were being absorbed by shareholders, rather than being passed on to ratepayers, the report said.

Mr. Grobe did not take issue with that analysis but maintained that safety has never taken a back seat to financial considerations.

Others are not convinced.

"They’ve given themselves permission to consider costs in the equation. That is an incredibly dangerous place to place themselves," according to Billie Garde, a Washington attorney who defends NRC employees and nuclear workers.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who is renewing her call for a congressional investigation, said it was evident to her in 1985 that the NRC was not doing its job when Davis-Besse nearly had a major accident because of a temporary loss of feed-water. "Again, they [the NRC] have failed in their responsibilities," she said.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) has convinced the General Accounting Office to investigate the NRC’s performance at Davis-Besse. And a spokesman for Mr. Markey’s office said that the congressman will pursue congressional hearings because of the belief that the NRC has been "bending over backwards to satisfy industry concerns and demands."

More articles on this subject »
2 more nuke plants show coolant leaks 01/22/2003
Moyers TV special on Davis-Besse 01/22/2003
NRC admits lengthy timetable for implementing safety reforms 01/15/2003
NRC frets about plant attitudes 01/15/2003
Debate emerges over NRC official 01/11/2003

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