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In face of inspection woes, NRC keeps cutting staff

02/13/03

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington- While corrosive acid was building up undetected for several years at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was steadily cutting its staff of inspectors who look for problems at nuclear plants, a Plain Dealer review of records shows.

The agency sliced its inspection work force nationwide by 12 percent - 79 employees - between 1998 and 2002.

And though the agency, as well as FirstEnergy Corp., is being heavily criticized for missing signs of the long-term boric acid leak that ate a hole in the carbon steel reactor lid at Davis-Besse, near Toledo, the NRC wants to cut even more inspectors, as it disclosed in its latest budget submission to Congress last week.

"I had no idea it was that drastic," Hal Ornstein, a retired NRC senior analyst who probed safety problems in the wake of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, said yesterday when told of the long-term pattern of cuts. "I'm really floored by that one."

NRC officials did not dispute the extent of the cuts. In documents and an interview, they cited belt-tightening as one reason for the reductions, as well as a shifting philosophy that emphasizes agency efficiency and self-inspection by utilities. Despite having fewer inspectors, they say, the nation's nuclear plants are safe.

"The new program allowed us to make some efficiencies" in the number of inspectors needed, said Bill Borchardt, an associate director in the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation.

To review staffing levels, The Plain Dealer examined a decade's worth of the NRC's detailed budgets, which included the amount of money requested and approved from Congress and the actual number of positions. The records showed the NRC, which gets most of its money from the licensing fees paid by nuclear plants, almost always sought the cuts.

It had the equivalent of 599 inspectors and support staff in 1994; the positions are recorded as full-time equivalents rather than actual jobs, although most times the two are the same.

Although the size of the inspection staff dropped over several years - as did the number of operating nuclear plants - it grew to 672 in 1998 because of highly publicized problems several years earlier at the Millstone plant in Waterford, Conn., and nationwide inspections that Millstone triggered, according to the NRC and industry officials. The company that owned Millstone had been handling spent nuclear fuel improperly and disregarding safety requirements. When a whistleblower went to the NRC, he found that the agency knew about the problem and never tried to stop it.

But by 1999, the controversy was fading and the NRC was cutting its ranks again - a trend that continues today, even though the number of plants has not changed since then.

The reductions starting in 1999 occurred while the agency was under pressure from Congress and the nuclear industry to back off its tough Millstone posture.

The NRC adapted a mandate from Congress to "reduce unnecessary regulatory burden."

Concurrently, the NRC fully implemented a long-sought overhaul of its reactor oversight program in 2000.

It told its inspectors to focus on plant components most at risk of failing while paying little attention to minor violations.

That allowed the NRC to place fewer inspectors in the nation's 104 plants, while staff at regional and national headquarters were available for consultation.

Bryan Clark, legislative advocate for the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, said the cuts allowed the agency to placate the nuclear power industry.

"While they certainly couldn't go to the American public and say 'We're going to decrease the safety of nuclear power plants in the United States,' what they can do is say through the budget process, 'We're not going to allocate as many resources to enforcement,' " Clark said. "It achieves the same end."

The NRC rejects such notions, maintaining that Davis-Besse was an exception to the rule of safer plants under the new inspection regimen.

But David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer who worked in the industry before joining the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes that the Davis-Besse debacle marked the fourth incident since 1995 serious enough for the NRC to convene an internal task force to investigate its failings.

"There's one every other year," Lochbaum said. "Apparently the staffing level we have isn't preventing these bad performances at these plants."

Furthermore, the NRC's remaining inspectors have too little time to do their jobs well, Lochbaum said.

"We're hearing from a lot of inspectors that if they find something that seems to be a problem, in the old days they could pull the string and see if it's the tip of the iceberg or just an isolated case. But under the new system they don't have time to do that, because every minute of their time is mandated to cover something," he said.

Inspectors now are instructed to stick with their task lists and, if they spot something that's not on them, tell the utility to put it on its own "corrective action" list, Lochbaum said.

The NRC relies on the utility to follow up.

Asked if it was possible that the agency had gone overboard in its reductions, the NRC's Borchardt said, "There's certainly a chance, and that's a strength of the new reactor oversight program. We have built into that program an annual assessment of all the lessons learned . . . and this year we obviously have the benefit of the Davis-Besse review."

In a Senate subcommittee hearing today, senators are expected to quiz the NRC on why, given the failures at Davis-Besse that included a documented shortage of inspectors, the agency last week submitted a budget request seeking even fewer inspectors.

NRC officials have suggested they might change that request.

"I don't think that the inspection program . . . will ever become stagnant," Borchardt said. "It needs to be constantly improving and evolving to address the current issues and the experiences that we learn."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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