Article published Thursday, July 4, 2002|
probes reason plant stayed open
of industry pressure, politics under
By TOM HENRY
OAK HARBOR, Ohio - A federal probe is under way
to determine whether politics or industry pressure was involved in
the decision by senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials in
December to let FirstEnergy Corp. keep operating the troubled
Davis-Besse nuclear plant six more weeks until its current refueling
While acknowledging that external influences are
unavoidable to some degree, a spokesman for the NRC’s Office of
Inspector General told The Blade that it is investigating the extent
to which anything other than scientific, technical information was
used as the basis for the NRC’s decision to let FirstEnergy keep
operating Davis-Besse until Feb. 16.
"We want to know if the
decision was based on a technical review - not on political or
industry pressure," said George Mulley, NRC deputy assistant
inspector general for investigations.
In December, some NRC
staff members argued that the agency should have issued what would
have been its first emergency shutdown order for a U.S. nuclear
plant since 1987.
In addition, the NRC inspector general’s
office is trying to determine why the agency admittedly was caught
off-guard by the extent of corrosion revealed on top of the
Davis-Besse reactor head during an inspection after the February
refueling shutdown, Mr. Mulley said.
The corrosion - more
extensive than anything ever found on top of a U.S. nuclear reactor
head - was discovered only because company officials were told to
look for hairline cracks in 69 reactor-head tubes known as
control-rod drive-mechanism nozzles.
Minor cracks are not
uncommon, but circular-shaped ones have the potential to weaken a
plant’s structural integrity. Davis-Besse was one of several plants
singled out in 2001 as having a propensity for developing such
flaws, in part because it is similar in design to the Oconee nuclear
plant in South Carolina, where that same type of crack had been seen
for the first time.
One circumferential crack was eventually
identified at Davis-Besse. But NRC officials have said their whole
focus changed nationally after stumbling across the unprecedented
The inspector general wants to know whether that
discovery came as a surprise because of a regulatory breakdown
within the NRC, Mr. Mulley said.
"After we got into this
thing, it became apparent we have two separate issues," he
Meanwhile, interviews of 33 current and former
Davis-Besse employees - mostly engineers, supervisors, managers, or
directors - are under way by the NRC’s criminal investigative arm,
the Office of Investigations. Jan Strasma, NRC spokesman, declined
comment other than to confirm that it is one of several
investigations in progress.
Other probes include a
congressional inquiry that the House Energy and Commerce Committee
has initiated at the request of U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor (R., Old
Fort), plus less-formalized reviews that FirstEnergy and the NRC
have been doing of their own procedures. One of those includes a
report due out in early September by the NRC’s so-called "lessons
learned" task force, made up of NRC officials outside the agency’s
Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information &
Resource Service, a national anti-nuclear group based in Washington,
has compared the NRC’s handling of Davis-Besse to an incident
involving a steam generator tube rupture at the Indian Point 2
nuclear plant in New York on Feb. 15, 2000.
prompted the NRC’s inspector general to conclude that the agency’s
senior management failed to do adequate reviews that could have kept
the problem at Indian Point 2 from occurring. One safety evaluation
in particular was performed by a junior engineer with limited
experience, according to the report.
Mr. Mulley said that the
report "pointed out areas where things could have been handled
better" at Indian Point. But he said it is too early to draw
comparisons between that case and Davis-Besse.
inspector general’s report on Davis-Besse is expected this fall.
"We’re pretty far into it," he said.
containment building of the abandoned Midland 2 nuclear plant
project in northern Michigan has been cut open. FirstEnergy plans to
remove a 27-year-old, unused reactor head from that former Consumers
Power company facility within the next month and eventually place it
atop the reactor vessel at Davis-Besse.
steel replacement lid is 17 feet wide and weighs 150 tons. It is to
be trucked through the Toledo area en route to Davis-Besse, located
about 25 miles east in Carroll Township near Oak Harbor, Ottawa
The utility has set Aug. 1 as its target date for
delivery of the replacement head and is slightly ahead of schedule.
Todd Schneider, FirstEnergy spokesman has declined to provide the
likely shipping date or other details.
expected to spend $55 million to $75 million for the replacement
head and its installation. That’s a little more than half of what
the utility expects to put into Davis-Besse in hopes of restarting
the plant by the end of the year.