| Article published Sunday, January 26, 2003|
Whos’ minding nuclear store?
NRC’s ability to police itself is
(NRC HANDOUT)Red, rusty deposits on
this nuclear reactor vessel flange at Davis-Besse are caused
by leaking boric acid.
BLADE STAFF WRITER
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
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.
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
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,
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
"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.
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
"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.
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
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.
Meserve vehemently denied the inspector general’s allegations,
saying that financial considerations did not factor into the
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
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
Mr. Grobe did not take issue with that analysis but
maintained that safety has never taken a back seat to financial
Others are not convinced.
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
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."
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