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Editorial Editorial

Posted on Thu, Jan. 09, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Nuclear reaction
FirstEnergy has repaired its ways at Davis-Besse. Will Congress ensure that federal overseers do the same?

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 direction.

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