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Feds on Davis-Besse: Blame us, too

10/10/02

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, FirstEnergy Corp. and the nuclear industry all share blame for the mistakes and oversights that allowed a rust hole to fester unnoticed for years in the lid of the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor.

"We and the industry recognized the potential for this type of event 10 years ago," but along with FirstEnergy, failed to piece together the clues that were piling up at Davis-Besse, said Ed Hackett, the co-author of a scathing 96-page NRC report released yesterday.

The "lessons learned" study, which the agency sometimes undertakes to critique its performance in the wake of major problems at nuclear plants, recommends significant changes in the NRC's supervision of reactor operators. It calls for more scrutiny and skepticism, as well as stronger follow-up to make sure utilities are doing what they promise.

But FirstEnergy bears much of the responsibility for the unprecedented rust hole, which took the Toledo-area plant to the brink of a serious accident, the NRC report concludes. The company ignored problems, misinterpreted information, slashed its engineering budget and kept vital information from the NRC that might have helped catch the lid damage much sooner.

U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, who was briefed by NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, called the findings "serious and troubling."

He called for congressional hearings and a General Accounting Office investigation into the Davis-Besse affair, joining U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Cleveland Democrat, who previously called for such hearings.

Both Voinovich, a strong supporter of nuclear power, and Kucinich, a longtime critic of FirstEnergy, serve on committees that oversee the NRC.

The NRC report's 52 recommendations will be reviewed by a team of senior agency officials.

They will decide which ones merit action. The increased oversight the study calls for no doubt will require more dollars and staff, its authors said. The agency's budget comes mostly from fees paid by the nuclear industry, and it will be up to a cost-conscious and heavily lobbied Congress to determine if it should grow.

"The tough job is the follow-up," said report co-author Joe Donoghue. "Our charter was to look hard and tell [NRC management] what needs to get done. The next group has to decide where to get the money and resources."

Although lacking in some areas, the report does "a good job of identifying some problems that need to be fixed," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group.

"You can only juggle so many balls," he said of the NRC, whose staff and money cuts in its Midwest office challenged the agency's ability to oversee Davis-Besse, according to the report. "They need the resources to make things happen." Otherwise, the study "is just going to go up on a shelf." They also need relief from congressional pressure to fast-track nuclear industry demands, Lochbaum said.

Other watchdog groups - Ohio Citizen Action and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service - faulted the report for not probing the NRC's decision last fall to let Davis-Besse delay a shutdown to inspect its reactor lid.

The NRC report was sharply critical of the agency's own multiple failures to identify glaringly obvious problems at Davis-Besse throughout the 1990s. More broadly, the agency mishandled the industrywide problem of stress cracks in the reactor lid that allowed coolant to leak and corrode metal parts.

The report says that the NRC was wrong to go along with the American nuclear industry's assessment that such lid cracks weren't a safety risk and that corrosion could be easily spotted long before it caused a problem.

Rather than focus on preventing such leaks, as the French nuclear industry did by replacing reactor lids, the NRC chose to encourage reactor operators to find ways to catch the oozing cracks early. However, the report said, the NRC did not press nuclear plants to install equipment that would detect tiny amounts of spilled coolant.

The task force found that NRC has done a poor job sharing information about plant conditions and research results. For example, a former NRC senior inspector based at Davis-Besse said he knew in 2000 that plant workers had found clumps of acid left behind when spilled coolant evaporated from the hot reactor lid.

"However, he decided not to perform inspection follow-up and did not notify his supervisor," the report said. The NRC inspector didn't think that the built-up acid was significant, and thought that the company - which the agency viewed as a "good performer" - would clean it up.

The report also cited problems with the process the NRC uses to alert reactor operators to potentially dangerous conditions that might affect similar plants. From 1980 to 2002, the NRC issued 17 bulletins, information notices and other warnings to utilities about leakage and corrosion incidents, and yet the problems continued at many nuclear plants.

"This calls into question the effectiveness of the process as a catalyst for addressing issues," the task force said.

For example, in 1997, the NRC asked all plants to provide their plans for inspecting reactor lids for cracks. Davis-Besse had not planned to do the detailed crack inspections the NRC wanted until 2002.

FirstEnergy was more intent on keeping the reactor running to make electricity than on safety issues, the report said. The company accepted degraded equipment rather than fixing or replacing it, failed to learn from previous brushes with corrosion damage, and cut its engineering budget by 60 percent and staff by 44 percent from 1991 to 2001. The heavy workload and high turnover hurt the plant staff's ability to diagnose the signs of corrosion.

"The report provides some valuable insights," said FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider. "We've said we made mistakes, missed opportunities. Most importantly, we're putting into place more procedures and processes to make sure this doesn't happen again."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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