Executives at the FirstEnergy Corp. have been quick to admit
errors in their management of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant
near Toledo. The Akron-based power company has moved to make
substantial changes in personnel and procedures. Lessons have been
learned. The job of ensuring that those lessons stick falls to the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Unfortunately, agency officials
haven't been as forthcoming in their reaction.
The need for dramatic improvement at the commission was
reiterated last week with the release of a report by the NRC
inspector general. Hubert T. Bell examined the performance of the
agency at Davis-Besse. His harsh conclusions deserve close attention
and warrant prompt action.
In 2001, the commission discovered cracks and leaks in the lids
of nuclear power plants of the same deisgn as Davis-Besse. It
ordered all such plants to be inspected by the end of the year.
FirstEnergy wanted the agency to wait until March 2002. The
commission agreed to a February inspection.
Bell explained that commission officials did so even though they
had ``strong justification'' for ordering Davis-Besse to shut down
in November. At the time, FirstEnergy estimated that several metal
sleeves on the reactor lid were leaking. The agency had the
assurance of the power company that it would agree to an earlier
shutdown without opposition.
What caused the commission to forego its own goal of conducting
swift yet thorough inspections of all the plants in question? The
inspector general discovered that the NRC placed too much emphasis
on the financial and production priorities of FirstEnergy. It
neglected the overriding mission of the agency: safety.
In the end, the troubles at Davis-Besse were contained. No
accident occurred. No radiation leaked. Inspectors did find that
boric acid had eaten away a football-sized chunk of the reactor lid.
All that prevented cooling water from escaping the vessel head was a
thin layer of stainless steel.
The nuclear industry (and the country) cannot afford such a
narrow margin for error. The inspector general noted that commission
officials created something of a Catch-22 for themselves. They
required a high burden of proof before they would order the shutdown
of a plant. Yet that proof could only be acquired once the plant
ceased operations. Thus, the agency delayed.
In the middle of the 1990s, the NRC adopted an approach that paid
more attention to the costs of its regulations on power companies.
These burdens would be weighed against safety risks. Commission
officials insist health and safety have not been compromised. Yet,
the events at Davis-Besse suggest an erosion of first purposes.
The commission oversees the nuclear power industry. Congress has
the task of ensuring the commission fulfills its duty. Lawmakers
haven't been vigilant enough. They've urged the agency to speed
licensing renewals. They have not compensated for the shift in
resources. The NRC has reduced inspectors. It has curtailed the
hours and scope of inspections.
That makes little sense in an era of electricity deregulation.
Indeed, the lesson of deregulation elsewhere (savings and loans, in
particular) is the indispensable role of government oversight. As
nuclear plants age, they become more vulnerable to malfunction and
thus require a keen eye.
Officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission worried about
harming the nuclear power industry. Yet that is just the result. An
industry that plays a critcial role in meeting the country's energy
needs (not to mention environmental objectives) has been poorly
served by its overseers. Congress can make the necessary repairs by
ensuring the commission has sufficient resources and