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NRC to act on reforms for reactor oversight


John Funk, John Mangels and Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Reporters

Washington- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission today will unveil sweeping reforms intended to toughen its oversight of the nation's nuclear reactors.

The changes, many of which the NRC has deemed "high priority," are a direct result of the rust hole that last year brought the Davis-Besse plant to the brink of a major accident.

The new approach calls for tougher inspection regimens, better follow-up to make sure plant operators fix problems, quicker intervention by the NRC when signs of trouble appear, and a rethinking of some aspects of the agency's recently more relaxed attitude.

The agency's governing board this afternoon will review the nearly 50 recommendations from NRC managers. They are in a report to be released at the commission's meeting but obtained in advance by The Plain Dealer.

NRC officials would not comment yesterday. NRC Executive Director William Travers has ordered staffers to come up with an "action plan" by Feb. 28 to implement the changes.

The recommendations grew out of a review of the Davis-Besse debacle.

Some of those recommendations already are being acted upon and others will depend on budget and staff increases.

The NRC, under heavy fire from some members of Congress and nuclear watchdog groups, has accepted a large share of the blame for mistakes and oversights that allowed a rust hole to fester unnoticed for years on the lid of the Davis-Besse reactor.

The 20 highest-priority items mostly focus on beefing up the training, inspection routines and "questioning attitude" that inspectors based at nuclear plants and their bosses in NRC regional offices use to judge whether reactors are operating safely.

In its look back at the Davis-Besse affair, the agency admitted its inspectors missed or misjudged many clues that nozzles in the Toledo-area reactor's thick steel lid were cracked and leaking, and that the corrosive coolant seeping out was chewing a hole through the cover.

To remedy those lapses, the NRC intends to:

Periodically check that the programs nuclear plants have to prevent or catch coolant leaks and corrosion are actually being followed. In Davis-Besse's case, the NRC in 1990 signed off on the plant's corrosion-prevention plan, despite the agency's concerns that the program had significant problems.

The NRC's "acceptable" grade for Davis-Besse signaled the end of the agency's special attention to corrosion-prevention work at the plant. Over the next decade, the NRC assumed the company was doing what it had promised to do, while the company assumed that its corrosion inspection work was adequate because the agency had approved the plan.

Change existing guidelines or develop new ones to require that NRC inspectors regularly check the condition of the reactor's lid and nozzles. They could directly observe the lid while the reactor is shut down for repairs or refueling. They also could look at videotapes from the plant's own inspections, or check real-time images from remote cameras aimed at the reactor lid. The NRC does not currently require such systems.

Davis-Besse is installing a leak-detection system, but it does not employ cameras.

Pay special attention to long-standing unresolved problems at nuclear plants that have safety implications. The NRC would also give more scrutiny to corrective work that seems to be taking a long time, or to equipment modifications that plants have decided to delay or shelve.

At Davis-Besse, both the agency and the company missed the significance of radiation monitors and air coolers that for years kept clogging with corrosion residue. The NRC didn't object when Davis-Besse repeatedly postponed a plan that would have given inspectors a much better look at the area that was rusting. The plan - to cut bigger view ports in the metal skirt shrouding the reactor lid - was bottled up for more than a decade.

Rethink how the agency attempts to spot problem trends in the nation's nuclear fleet. The report recommends possibly setting up a "clearinghouse" within the NRC to review the operating experience of America's 103 commercial reactors. The agency had just such an office, set up immediately after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. But that operation was abolished on the 20-year anniversary of the event as part of cost-saving and a revamp to make the agency's regulatory approach less burdensome to the nuclear industry.

Although some of the changes the NRC is readying are "not only obvious but grossly overdue," nuclear watchdog Paul Gunter worries that overall the reforms don't address the real issue. That is a failure by the agency to stick to the regulations and procedures it already has, in the face of industry pressure, rather than adding new ones. "This appears to be guidance upon guidance," said Gunter, of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "We don't see any evidence that the NRC's role in prioritizing production over safety [at Davis-Besse] has been addressed."

An NRC inspector general's report 11 days ago blasted the agency's senior management.

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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