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October 05, 2002


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Local Companies | Article published October 5, 2002
Activists question NRC’s motivation
Agency defends Davis-Besse action

OAK HARBOR, Ohio - Activists claim an internal Nuclear Regulatory Commission memo about FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant has made them even more skeptical about how committed the government agency has been in upholding its safety mandate.

But an NRC spokesman said the public should read nothing into it - that a company’s financial considerations never have come into play when deciding what actions need to be taken to best protect the public.

(For more Davis-Besse coverage, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse)

The latest uproar involves a Nov. 21 memo that summarizes a meeting that day between Robert Saunders, president of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., and Samuel J. Collins, the NRC’s director of nuclear reactor regulation.

The meeting was held as senior NRC officials were mulling over a staff recommendation to shut down Davis-Besse by last Dec. 31, rather than letting it continue operating until its scheduled refueling outage in late March. Documents show several NRC staffers had a hunch that Davis-Besse had a problem with reactor-head nozzles, based on problems found at a similarly designed plant in South Carolina.

Mr. Collins is the senior-level NRC official ultimately responsible for accepting or nixing the staff recommendation. He let FirstEnergy keep operating Davis-Besse until Feb. 16.

The memorandum says Mr. Saunders made his concerns known about the financial difficulties FirstEnergy would have encountered if the NRC had forced it to shut down Davis-Besse by Dec. 31. Mr. Saunders pointed out that a mid-February shutdown was more viable, both financially and in terms of scheduling contractors, according to the memo.

The memo was uncovered by two activist groups, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Paul Gunter, a spokesman for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said Mr. Collins must have been persuaded to some degree by Mr. Saunders’ financial plea.

"The concern here is the willy-nilly nature in which the NRC dissolved the order," Mr. Gunter said, explaining that the NRC’s technical justification for letting Davis-Besse operate until Feb. 16 was never put in writing.

"Sam is now obligated to put in writing why he abandoned this order," Mr. Gunter said.

In a joint statement yesterday, the two activist groups called on Congress to "hold the NRC accountable for its problems as much as the NRC is now holding FirstEnergy accountable for its problems."

The NRC’s decision to let Davis-Besse continue operating until Feb. 16 has become the subject of a separate inquiry by the NRC’s Office of Inspector General.

Jan Strasma, an NRC spokesman, said the only thing that might have factored into the decision was scheduling. "Finances did not enter into the decision," he said. "Because the nozzle inspection is a fairly complex technique, you need the right workers and right equipment to do the work."

As it turned out, Davis-Besse had a huge problem: Not only were some reactor-head nozzles cracked, but boric acid from the reactor had leaked out of two of them. In one spot, the acid had nearly chewed its way through the whole reactor head - one of the most important safeguards the public has from radiation.

"Had we known that, we would have shut down the plant immediately," Mr. Strasma said.

The corrosion has been described by the NRC as the worst ever found atop a U.S. nuclear plant, sending shock waves throughout the nuclear industry here and abroad. Several plants are now making plans to replace their reactor heads.

(For more Davis-Besse coverage, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse)

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