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August 17, 2002

 



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Other | Article published Saturday, August 17, 2002
NRC told: Let new panel probe N-plant conditions

BY BLADE STAFF

ALBANY, N.Y. - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should set up an independent unit, staffed by experts, to investigate "off-normal ... conditions" at nuclear power plants before problems occur, a representative of the New York State attorney general urged in a letter to a task force investigating the Davis-Besse plant.

"We believe that the major corrosion hole in the Davis-Besse nuclear plant’s pressure vessel in Ohio could have been discovered much earlier if better procedures were in place," wrote Peter Skinner, chief scientist of the New York attorney general’s environmental protection bureau.

Because his state lies downwind from Ohio and "the potential impacts of a vessel breach [are] so great," Mr. Skinner urged the commission "to institute better preventative regulatory measures."

At a commission hearing Thursday in Chicago, Davis-Besse officials said that plant operators in the 1990s justified potential safety problems rather than assess and fix them. That led plant operators to overlook boric-acid corrosion, which, when discovered in March, had eaten a hole in the reactor vessel head. As a result, only a 3/8-inch-thick stainless steel lining covered the reactor vessel.

Mr. Skinner’s letter was addressed to the NRC’s Lessons Learned Task Force, made up of commission officials not previously involved with Davis-Besse. The task force is expected to issue a report in September.

Arthur T. Howell III, head of the task force and director of the division of reactor safety of Region 4 in Arlington, Texas, could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Skinner wrote that there was a large body of evidence of a worsening corrosion problem at Davis-Besse but that it was not fully investigated either by FirstEnergy, which operates the plant near Oak Harbor, or the commission.

He wrote that the commission should establish an independent unit in its inspector general’s office, with authority "to investigate off-normal and other conditions before accidents occur."

The office should be staffed by qualified investigators, scientists, and engineers "with sufficient authority to obtain necessary information and the skills to ‘connect the dots.’" This investigative unit would target and resolve problems at individual reactor sites, "the explanations of which have eluded licensees."

Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said he had not seen the letter and did not comment on the specifics of Mr. Skinner’s proposal.



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