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House quietly ends Davis-Besse probe

09/27/02

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington

- An investigation of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant has ended quietly in Congress, with no new charges or hearings on how the plant was allowed to flirt with disaster.

But the way the investigation ended has raised questions about whether the House Energy and Commerce Committee was ever committed to looking deeply into the Davis-Besse debacle. As recently as last week, a committee spokesman said the investigation was continuing, though no hearings were expected before Congress breaks for the November elections.

Ranking committee member Paul Gillmor, an Ohio Republican whose district includes the power plant east of Toledo, says the probe has ended because investigators were unable to turn up anything new. "The investigation is over," Gillmor said.

Gillmor in May had asked committee chairman Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, to order the investigation after reading reports that boric acid had eaten a hole in the reactor lid, an extraordinary occurrence.

Plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron overlooked evidence of rust and corrosion accumulating for years, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials overruled their staff's advice last fall to shut the plant down by Dec. 31 - six weeks earlier than it did.

"I just wanted the committee to go out and take a look at what was going on and make sure that the right things were being done," Gillmor said of the investigation. The committee staff told him last month that they were done because "there weren't wrong things going on other than what is known," he said. "No smoking guns, no secret stuff."

That conclusion stuns groups and individuals who have been seeking, unsuccessfully, to get an independent investigation of Davis-Besse. "It would disappoint me greatly," Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Democrat of Toledo, said when told of Gillmor's comments to The Plain Dealer.

"That's flabbergasting," Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service said when told the congressional investigation is over. However, he acknowledged, "We were skeptical from the very beginning that this effort was ever going to go beyond the surface."

Nuclear power watchdogs note that it was only this month that FirstEnergy and the NRC acknowledged a further problem at Davis-Besse: A stainless steel liner under the degraded lid - the only thing holding back high-pressure, radioactive coolant - was cracked and thinner than expected.

Furthermore, the critics note, the NRC's own investigation is not over. The NRC's probe includes an examination by criminal investigators into whether FirstEnergy disclosed all it knew about the lid to the agency, and why agency personnel allowed the plant to run until February.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that Congress -Tauzin's committee in particular - oversees the NRC. It would have been logical, he said, for the committee to wait for the NRC to complete its work first, since Congress then could review the NRC's own handling of the matter.

"Perhaps schedule was placed ahead of quality," Lochbaum said. There "seems to be a lot of that going around in this case."

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said the utility had "not been notified officially of the completion of the investigation. To the extent the investigation is completed, that's good news and is an important step in returning Davis-Besse to service."

Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson last night said that although the Energy and Commerce Committee staff is still completing a summary of its findings, the investigation is, in fact, over.

"Clearly there were problems at the plant, but we do not believe they are problems which will be repeated," Johnson said.

The FirstEnergy Political Action Committee so far has given $4,000 to Tauzin for his re-election effort, including $1,000 in March. In addition, the FirstEnergy PAC in April gave $1,500 to Bayou Leader PAC, a separate fund that Tauzin uses to assist like-minded politicians. FirstEnergy PAC gave $1,400 to Gillmor in February.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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