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Analyst breaks NRC staff's united front

03/01/03

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

A veteran government risk analyst involved in the controversial decision to delay lid inspections at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in 2001 has broken with his colleagues to charge that the decision was badly flawed.

In a sternly worded memo to senior executives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 16-year agency employee Steven Long warns that public safety will be jeopardized if they repeat their mistake of basing judgments on "truly incomplete and unreliable" information.

Long contends the NRC did not have enough information to justify letting Davis-Besse postpone the safety inspection.

Instead, Long said the agency should have relied on the strong circumstantial evidence it had collected from other reactors that already had shut down at the NRC's request to check their lids. All six of Davis-Besse's sister plants had found cracks and leaks in the steel nozzles that are passageways for the reactors' control rods.

On that basis, Long wrote, Davis-Besse should have been ordered closed to do the lid inspection. Neither Long nor other NRC officials returned calls yesterday seeking comment.

Long's memo is the first breach in what agency executives have portrayed as a unanimous agreement. Last month, Long's boss wrote to the NRC commissioners in praise of the decision postponing Davis-Besse's inspection, saying it was "not only correct, but . . . a good and appropriate model for future actions."

Long said he was "especially troubled" by that viewpoint.

The discovery of cracks at several other plants and the risk that a damaged nozzle could be blown out of the lid prompted the NRC in August 2001 to ask Davis-Besse and 68 similar reactors to shut down by year's end for inspections. Others agreed to the costly work, but Davis-Besse owner FirstEnergy Corp. resisted, arguing it should be allowed to run until April 1, 2002.

The NRC had prepared and authorized an order requiring Davis-Besse to comply - a measure that hadn't been used in 14 years. Instead, based on the supposedly unanimous staff agreement, NRC reactor-regulation director Sam Collins relented and accepted a compromise.

That compromise allowed the Toledo-area plant to run 47 days past the Dec. 31, 2001, inspection deadline.

When Davis-Besse did shut down and found cracks, workers repairing them stumbled upon a pineapple-sized rust hole caused by corrosive coolant that had been leaking unnoticed since at least 1996. The lid could have burst in as few as one or two years, the NRC determined.

Putting off the inspection delayed the rust hole's discovery by six weeks and sparked both internal and external criticism of how the NRC reached its decision. Agency chairman Richard Meserve and other top agency officials have insisted that the NRC staff reached unanimous agreement in a hastily called meeting that letting Davis-Besse run the additional six weeks posed no significant safety concern.

But Long, in his six-page memo, made public yesterday, told Meserve that it would be wrong to suggest there was complete agreement.

In a meeting on Nov. 28, 2001, the day the Davis-Besse shutdown order was to be issued, 12 to 16 agency technical personnel - most of them managers - gathered to hash out their positions. Associate licensing director Brian Sheron asked for a show of hands on whether the Davis-Besse shutdown order should be issued.

Long was one of three staffers who supported ordering FirstEnergy to do the inspection before year's end. Sheron then asked if anyone thought there would be an accident related to nozzle cracking if Davis-Besse operated the additional six weeks.

No one said they thought such an accident was likely in that short time. However, Long said he "did not then and do not now agree" that that meant there was no significant safety concern at Davis-Besse. The very information that analysts needed to make an accurate judgment of the risk at Davis-Besse would not be available until the plant shut down for its lid inspection, Long argued.

"I am concerned that eventually we will fail to adequately protect the public if we continue to use . . . risk information without regard to its reliability" in a specific case, he wrote.

Long also faulted the way the decision was reached, saying he did not even realize that the polling of staff members Sheron conducted in the impromptu meeting would be the final word. No records were kept of the meeting.

"I assumed that the 'show of hands' was only a quick way to see what bottom-line conclusion had been reached by each of us," Long wrote.

There were far more managers than technical reviewers at the meeting, said Long. If the vote was intended to be a "representative democracy," he said, it would have been the other way around, since there are more staffers than managers in the NRC, and since the staffers had done the Davis-Besse risk analysis.

Long's conclusions are all the more troubling because the NRC seems reluctant to acknowledge them, said Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a watchdog group.

"Frankly, it's complicated by the unwillingness of the commission to revisit the issue," he said.

The NRC's Inspector General in a January report strongly criticized the Davis-Besse decision, saying a seven-month inquiry showed the agency had enough evidence to justify shutting down the plant but let it run largely because it didn't want to hurt FirstEnergy financially.

Meserve, the agency's chairman, rejected the findings as "unjustified, unfair and misleading." An NRC task force responsible for identifying lessons the agency should learn from the Davis-Besse debacle recommended taking a hard look at the adequacy of the NRC's methods for evaluating the risk that reactor lids might be deteriorating.

"I hope that the agency can move past defensive reactions to criticism and learn from this experience," Long concluded.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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