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January 05, 2003


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Other | Article published Saturday, January 4, 2003
Investigators allege NRC put profit first


OAK HARBOR, Ohio - By meeting FirstEnergy Corp. halfway on last yearís shutdown date for the Davis-Besse nuclear plant, senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials violated public trust - and the agencyís mission - with a profit-ahead-of-safety compromise, according to a government report issued yesterday.

The NRCís Office of Inspector General said in a 25-page report that agency officials failed to uphold their mandate for keeping safety paramount to financial considerations by setting aside a shutdown order the agencyís staff had written in the fall of 2001.

The order was to be enforced no later than Dec. 31, 2001. Instead, senior NRC officials let FirstEnergy keep operating the plant until Feb. 16 because they were "driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact on FENOC that would result from an early shutdown," the report said.

FENOC is a FirstEnergy subsidiary called FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. and is in charge of running the plant.

Davis-Besse was originally scheduled to begin a month-long refueling cycle March 31. After learning the NRC was preparing a rare government shutdown order because it feared the plant had reactor-head nozzles that were cracked and leaking, FirstEnergy successfully lobbied for the Feb. 16 date to help mitigate losses, the report said.

The NRCís willingness to cut a deal "was made without a well-documented analysis of available information," according to the inspector general, which claimed its review of records shows that NRC staff members had laid out a convincing argument for the earlier shutdown.

The agency admittedly has been embarrassed by what was found: Two cavities in the reactor head caused by leaking boric acid, one so deep that six inches of steel had been melted down to a quarter-inch liner so thin that its strength was not known.

A hole popping through the reactor head would have caused the loss of the plantís greatest defense barriers against a nuclear meltdown. Radioactive steam would have filled the containment building and left residents hoping the plantís other safety features would have been enough to protect them.

The degree of corrosion has been described by the NRC for months as the nationís closest brush with a major nuclear accident since Three Mile Island in 1979.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said the inspector generalís report reaffirmed her suspicion that the NRC is a weak agency that allows itself to be coerced by industry.

"It was all about money - not people and safety," according to Miss Kaptur, who said she will continue to press Congress for an outside investigation of the NRCís performance at Davis-Besse.

A request to have the NRC pay for such an investigation, filed April 24 by 15 citizen groups, was rejected in October by Sam Collins - the same NRC official who approved the Feb. 16 compromise. Mr. Collins is the NRCís nuclear reactor regulation director.

"Sam Collins should be fired, period," Amy Ryder, Ohio Citizen Action spokesman, said. "This is an agency which keeps saying it should overhaul itself. This is how they can start: Fire Sam Collins."

The inspector general said its probe came as a result of issues raised by the Union of Concerned Scientists. That groupís nuclear safety engineer, David Lochbaum, stopped short yesterday of calling for Mr. Collinsí dismissal but said he should at least be reassigned. "Experience just shows heís not the right man for that job," Mr. Lochbaum said.

Mr. Collins did not return calls to his office.

The inspector general acknowledged in its report that the NRC rarely issues shutdown orders, in part because of the high costs to defend them from legal challenges. The last one issued was in 1987.

But the report states that the NRC appears to have established an "unreasonably high burden of requiring absolute proof of a safety problem" before it will go to the extreme of issuing such an order, even though a shutdown is the only way in which many safety problems can be diagnosed. As one NRC official explained to inspector general investigators, the agency is reluctant to act unless it feels confident it has a "guaranteed win," the report said.

Outgoing NRC Chairman Richard Meserve took issue with the inspector generalís findings, defended his agencyís performance, and said he plans no immediate personnel changes.

"I do think the report may create a misleading perception. Safety is the highest priority for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If thereís a concern about safety that would require the shutdown of a plant, we would not hesitate," said Dr. Meserve, who is stepping down in March to become president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington. President Bush is expected to nominate a successor soon, with his choice subject to Senate confirmation.

FirstEnergy had little comment about the inspector general report or the Feb. 16 compromise date.

"We compiled what we thought was a compelling argument to get an extension," Richard Wilkins, company spokesman, said.

He and Dr. Meserve pointed out the decision for the Feb. 16 shutdown was based on what the NRC knew at the time. The company and the agency have stated repeatedly that the degree of corrosion found at Davis-Besse - unprecedented in U.S. nuclear history - caught everyone off-guard.

FirstEnergy would not have sought an extension had it known the magnitude of the problem, Mr. Wilkins said. "We would have shut the plant down on our own," he said.

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