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August 06, 2002


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Local Companies | Article published August 6, 2002
NRC questions own decision on Davis-Besse shutdown


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.

NRC 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 outage.

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 March refueling.

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.

NRC 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 right one.

"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 incur?"

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 September.

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.

In 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 1987.

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.

NRC officials 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.

Two 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 promptly.

"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."

Last 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.

"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."

The NRCís 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.

Richard Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman, told The Blade itís "possible" that the $35 million estimate is an accurate figure, but said he was not sure.

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.

More articles on this subject Ľ
Area utility could lose $1.3 billion plant sale 08/01/2002
Water to slice up containment building at Davis-Besse 07/26/2002
Coalition wants Davis-Besse plant shut permanently 07/25/2002
84-ton reactor head arrives at Davis-Besse 07/19/2002
Lake Erie security zones near 2 nuke plants now permanent 07/18/2002

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