Article published Saturday, January 4, 2003|
Investigators allege NRC put profit
BLADE STAFF WRITER
OAK HARBOR, Ohio - By meeting FirstEnergy Corp.
halfway on last year’s shutdown date for the Davis-Besse nuclear
plant, senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials violated
public trust - and the agency’s mission - with a
profit-ahead-of-safety compromise, according to a government report
The NRC’s 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 agency’s 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.
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
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.
hole popping through the reactor head would have caused the loss of
the plant’s greatest defense barriers against a nuclear meltdown.
Radioactive steam would have filled the containment building and
left residents hoping the plant’s other safety features would have
been enough to protect them.
The degree of corrosion has been
described by the NRC for months as the nation’s closest brush with a
major nuclear accident since Three Mile Island in 1979.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said the inspector general’s 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 NRC’s
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 NRC’s 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 group’s nuclear safety engineer, David
Lochbaum, stopped short yesterday of calling for Mr. Collins’
dismissal but said he should at least be reassigned. "Experience
just shows he’s not the right man for that job," Mr. Lochbaum
Mr. Collins did not return calls to his
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
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
Outgoing NRC Chairman Richard Meserve took issue with
the inspector general’s findings, defended his agency’s 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 there’s 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
"We compiled what we thought was a compelling argument
to get an extension," Richard Wilkins, company spokesman,
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