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October 11, 2002


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Editorials | 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 agendas.

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 readers.

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 occur.

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.

The documents show, for instance, that NRC managers overruled a staff recommendation to close Davis-Besse last December.

NRC staff 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 systems degraded.

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 regulating.

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 gadfly.

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.

Even the NRC acknowledged Wednesday its own failures to monitor Davis-Besse’s problems.

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 at http://www.ucsusa.org/.

The Davis-Besse 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.

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