Companies | Article published August 6, 2002|
NRC questions own decision on Davis-Besse
By TOM HENRY
ROCKVILLE, Md. - Government inspectors hope to
decide by late September if top Nuclear Regulatory Commission
officials erred by letting FirstEnergy Corp. keep operating the
companyís Davis-Besse nuclear plant until Feb. 16.
officials debated internally in memos and e-mails whether they
should have ordered the plantís reactor taken off line last fall for
a safety inspection to determine if cracks had developed inside its
control-rod drive mechanism nozzles like those found at similar
plants. The regulatory agency then set a deadline for a shutdown by
Dec. 31, three months ahead of the plantís scheduled refueling
At least one other U.S. nuclear plant operator agreed
that the potential risk from cracks was enough to voluntarily shut
down two of its plants before Dec. 31. But FirstEnergy officials
balked at that deadline, arguing that the slow rate of degradation
would safely allow them to remain in operation until their scheduled
In the end, the NRC and FirstEnergy reached
agreement on a compromise date of Feb. 16 so the utility could save
money - possibly as much as $35 million - by inspecting the plant at
the same time it was refueling it.
After Davis-Besse went off
line, utility and NRC officials learned that boric acid had eaten a
milk jug-sized hole in the reactor cap. Only about three-eighths of
an inch of buckled stainless steel prevented the pressure of the
reactor from leaking into the reactor containment building - the
last line of radiation protection to the public.
officials called the corrosion at Davis-Besse the greatest risk to
public safety since the Three Mile Island. Now, the NRCís Office of
Inspector General wants to know if the decision of senior NRC
officials to allow the plant to keep operating until Feb. 16 was the
"Those are exactly the concerns weíre looking at,"
George Mulley of the NRCís Office of Inspector General told The
Blade yesterday. "Did the NRC make a decision based on technical
merit or the cost that the licensee [FirstEnergy] would
Mr. Mulley is NRC deputy assistant inspector general
for investigations. He said the NRC inspector generalís office is
moving forward with more interviews of agency personnel, and that it
hopes to publish its internal audit by late
Although Mr. Mulley said he could not respond
directly to specific pieces of correspondence, he acknowledged they
are "obviously one of the main focuses" of the probe.
particular, the inspector generalís office wants to know why a staff
recommendation to shut Davis-Besse by Dec. 31 for an immediate
safety inspection was rejected by senior NRC management. That type
of shutdown order has not been issued at a U.S. nuclear plant since
Davis-Besse was on a short list of nuclear plants
deemed susceptible to having the most dangerous type of reactor-head
nozzle cracks - those which grow in a circular pattern and weaken
the strength of long, metal tubes that house the control rods
operators use to shut down nuclear reactors.
conceded that evidence of a serious problem was largely
circumstantial, due to the age and design of Davis-Besse and its
similarity to the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina, where that
same problem was first revealed in February, 2001. Davis-Besse is 25
years old and is one of seven plants built by the former Babcock
& Wilcox company, where similar problems have arisen.
national consumer groups in Washington yesterday issued a joint
report alleging that the NRC paper trail demonstrates the government
agency was savvy enough to detect a problem likely existed at
Davis-Besse, but that it lacked the backbone to act
"The Davis-Besse near-miss demonstrated that the
NRC has a brain," said the report, signed by David Lochbaum of the
Union of Concerned Scientists and Paul Gunter of the Nuclear
Information and Resource Serviceís reactor watchdog project. "The
near-miss also demonstrated that the NRC lacks a spine."
fallís review of inspection video tapes and other records occurred
as a result of the Oconee problem, prompting the NRC to check on the
status of a number of plants.
One utility, Dominion Energy,
voluntarily shut down its Surry 2 and North Anna 2 nuclear plants in
Virginia to do similar safety inspections, rather than risk the
chance of being ordered to do so by the NRC.
successfully encouraged Dominion Energy to do the right thing at
Surry and North Anna. The NRC was unable to encourage FirstEnergy to
do the right thing and then backed up that failure with a failure to
enforce safety regulations that would have made FirstEnergy do the
right thing," the report stated.
The consumer groups claimed
FirstEnergy "called the NRCís bluff and won."
inspector generalís office will be comparing the messages that were
exchanged between the NRC and FirstEnergy with those between the NRC
and Dominion Energy, Mr. Mulley said.
He said the probe also
will examine if top NRC officials were in any way influenced by the
hefty cost of an emergency shutdown at Davis-Besse.
Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman, told The Blade itís "possible" that
the $35 million estimate is an accurate figure, but said he was not
He said the utility did not base its argument against a
shut down last fall around costs. Instead, the utility suggested to
the NRC that the company could minimize worker exposure with one
combined outage instead of two and that the plantís most extensive
testing program was only weeks away.
"The other argument was
that if there was a technical basis that we were operating at a risk
to the public, that we wanted to know about it," he said, claiming
the NRC did not provide such proof.
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