ASHINGTON, Jan. 3 — Three months before workers
refueling an Ohio nuclear reactor discovered last year that
its lid had rusted nearly all the way through, the staff of
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission drafted an order to close it
But the order was never issued, because the staff doubted
its authority to close the plant, did not want to impose
unnecessary costs on the owner and was reluctant to give the
industry a black eye, according to an internal commission
report released today.
The report, by the commission's inspector general,
concluded that the staff had been too hesitant and that a
policy adopted by the N.R.C. in the mid-1990's to take costs
into account when setting regulatory requirements was in
conflict with the commission's goal of maintaining reasonable
assurance of public safety.
But the basic problem, the report said, was the staff's
assumption about who had the burden of proof — the commission
or a plant's operator — when safety was in question.
The commission "appears to have informally established an
unreasonably high burden of requiring" of itself "absolute
proof of a safety problem, versus lack of reasonable assurance
of maintaining public health and safety," said the inspector
general, Hubert T. Bell.
The report, dated Dec. 30, was issued today after an
account about it appeared this morning in the Cleveland daily
The Plain Dealer. Its sharp criticism of the commission's
staff concerned the belated nature of the shutdown of the
Davis-Besse reactor, near Toledo, last year.
Other reactors of the same design had been found to have
cracks in parts attached to the lid, and the commission wanted
all such plants inspected by Dec. 31, 2001. The operators of
the Davis-Besse plant wanted to wait until March 2002, when
the reactor was scheduled to be shut anyway for refueling.
When the plant finally closed, on a compromise date in
February 2002, engineers and workers were shocked to find that
cracks of the kind the commission staff had suspected there
had let acidic water leak onto the head, where it had eaten
away a 70-pound chunk of steel six inches thick.
Only a layer of stainless steel about a quarter-inch thick
had prevented the cooling water from spewing out of the vessel
head, in a leak that could have proved catastrophic. The
corrosion was the most extensive ever found at an American
Three months earlier, in November 2001, the commission's
staff had drafted a shutdown order. But some staff members
were not sure they had the authority to issue it, the
inspector general's report found. Others thought that it might
not be defensible in court, and that such an order would
"destabilize confidence" in the industry.
William M. Beecher, director of the commission's public
affairs office, said the N.R.C. received the report on
Thursday and had not yet determined how it would respond. But,
he said, "the N.R.C. has the unquestionable and unquestioned
authority to shut down a plant if it concludes that public
health and safety is potentially in jeopardy."
Such shutdown orders were common in the 1970's and 1980's,
when reactors were newer and operating problems were first
occurring. They are rarer now. In the mid-1990's, the
commission adopted a policy called "risk-informed regulation,"
in which it pays more careful attention to the costs it
imposes on plant operators, comparing those costs with the
amount of risk reduction they provide.
But Mr. Beecher said that while the commission and its
staff do take costs into account, "the primary and overarching
requirement, concern, standard, for the N.R.C. is public
health and safety."
"Anything else," he said, "is secondary or tertiary."
As for the concern about having to defend such an order in
court, the new report determined that the fear of a lawsuit
had been unfounded. The president of the FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company,
which runs Davis-Besse, told the inspector general that no
formal shutdown order would have been required; he would have
closed the plant had the commission simply telephoned and
asked him to do so, he said.
The inspector general undertook his investigation at the
request of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a safety group
that is generally highly critical of nuclear operations.
David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the group, said in
an interview that shutting down early for a special inspection
would not have been an undue burden on Davis-Besse. Other
reactors suspected of cracks in the lids did just that, Mr.