Article published Friday, October 11, 2002|
The NRC’s failures
Public interest groups sometimes are
self-interest groups. While claiming non-partisan, watchdog status,
they actually advance their own narrow political and social
Some embellish or ignore the facts when it serves
their purposes. And knee-jerk reactions can replace sober, reasoned
scientific analysis of important issues.
How refreshing to
see a different kind of watchdog in action the last several months.
It’s been a rousing real-life David-and-Goliath encounter in
Washington involving a local mess familiar to Blade
The mess: That infamous hole-in-the-reactor
vessel-head incident at FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power
Station. Years of lapses by FirstEnergy and the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) allowed the near-disastrous situation to
NRC fits the Goliath image, being the vast government
bureaucracy whose duties include ensuring safe operation of
America’s 103 commercial power plants.
There actually is a
real-life David. He’s David Lochbaum, who has been nuclear safety
engineer in the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Washington,
D.C., office since the 1990s. UCS is a nonprofit organization of
scientists and citizens that does technical studies and lobbies on
energy, environment, and other issues.
Mr. Lochbaum has used
his 17 years of experience in the nuclear power industry, and the
NRC’s own records, to document intolerable lapses in the agency’s
regulation of Davis-Besse. His work has supplemented excellent news
reporting on Davis-Besse by The Blade and other media.
documents show, for instance, that NRC managers overruled a staff
recommendation to close Davis-Besse last December.
concluded that Davis-Besse was a safety hazard that should be shut
down immediately. But NRC management vetoed it. Management let
Davis-Besse stay in operation for almost two months, with safety
Why? Because an NRC manager felt an earlier
shutdown would put a dent in FirstEnergy’s profits, according to Mr.
Lochbaum’s documents. The NRC’s sole concern should have been public
safety, not the profit margin of a utility it was supposed to be
That’s just one example of what may be a
dangerous institutional culture at the NRC, in which managers have
lost sight of the agency’s statutory role. Others have come to light
thanks to Mr. Lochbaum’s effectiveness as a professional
Mr. Lochbaum contends that NRC managers don’t have
the backbone to stand up to the utilities. He calls the NRC a
federal agency "with a brain, but no spine," and urges a
congressional investigation of the NRC’s performance.
the NRC acknowledged Wednesday its own failures to monitor
We may take exception to UCS
positions on some other topics. But Congress should investigate the
NRC. UCS’ impressive evidence on the NRC’s failings can be perused
incident has damaged prospects for a national expansion of nuclear
power. It could be a clean, secure, abundant source of energy for
the 21st century. But does NRC management have the ability - and the
guts - to assure its safe use?
Until Congress addresses those
questions, the NRC itself may be a cloud on nuclear power’s horizon.