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Davis-Besse decision revisited before NRC

10/30/02

John Funk, Stephen Koff and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

Washington - The nuclear industry is hearing two conflicting takes on the government's controversial decision last fall to allow the Davis-Besse power plant to continue operating when regulators strongly suspected that the reactor's lid was cracked and leaking.

On one hand, a top Nuclear Regulatory Commission official yesterday gave a detailed presentation in support of the agency's use of a new analytical process that focuses attention on areas deemed to have the most risk while eliminating unnecessary regulation.

On the other hand, the NRC's harshest critics say the methodology created a "regulatory fiasco" at Davis-Besse.

Using the risk-informed process, "not one person said 'I object' or 'I have a technical problem' " at an NRC staff meeting last November to hash out the final decision, Brian Sheron, the agency's senior licensing and technical official, said yesterday at the NRC's annual meeting on nuclear safety research. "It may not be their ideal [decision], but they all said it was acceptable . . . from a safety standpoint."

The NRC lacked the solid proof its lawyers said was necessary to shut down Davis-Besse before owner FirstEnergy Corp. wanted to, Sheron said.

And letting the plant run six weeks longer did not significantly heighten the risk to the public.

Also, the president of FirstEnergy's nuclear division personally assured the agency that the reactor lid had been properly inspected.

The counter view comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The evidence at Davis-Besse "strongly suggests that the NRC's risk-informed sword is razor-sharp on the side that cuts regulatory requirements, but is dull as a Nerf knife on the side that imposes requirements," said UCS nuclear safety engineer David Lochbaum in prepared remarks that are to be delivered today.

"We may not be so lucky as we were this time at Davis-Besse if the NRC continues with its 'business-as-usual' swordsmanship," he said. The NRC last year asked operators of plants like Davis-Besse to provide evidence that their reactors were safe to continue operating. That evidence, in the form of visual or instrument-aided inspections of reactor lids, could only be obtained when the reactors were shut down.

Officials at Davis-Besse, which was at high risk for cracking and leaks because of its operating temperature, wanted to do the inspection during a refueling outage in March, three months later than the NRC wanted.

The utility brokered a compromise shutdown on Feb. 16. Soon afterward, workers found that not only was the lid cracking and leaking but that corrosive coolant residue that had accumulated for years atop the lid had bored a hole all the way through the 6-inch-thick steel. Only a thin, stainless steel liner prevented a major accident.

The agency prepared a shutdown order as a bluff and also as a backup in case FirstEnergy played hardball and wouldn't shut down, said Sheron.

"I haven't seen a plant yet that wants an order from the NRC," Sheron said. "What it does to their bond and stock rating is a disaster. . . . [But] I told my staff we are going to have to back it up with an order.

"But our lawyers said if you issue an order you must have an immediate safety concern."

And FirstEnergy's nuclear division president, Robert Saunders, had assured the agency that inspections of the reactor lid had found no signs of leakage, he said. If there were cracks in Davis-Besse's lid, Sheron said, the agency's analysts were saying that the likelihood they would cause an accident during the additional few weeks FirstEnergy wanted to run the plant "can't be measured."

UCS' Lochbaum and other critics maintain that the decision violated most if not all of the agency's own safety guidelines for making risk-based decisions. Those safety principles say that when utilities want to make changes in operating conditions, they must ensure that the plant continues to preserve safety margins and protective barriers and meets NRC regulations.

"They are not hard-and-fast rules, just guiding principles the staff should take into consideration when it has to make a technical judgment," Sheron said.

It was only after the rust hole was found in March that the NRC began to learn that FirstEnergy had not presented a complete and accurate picture of the lid's condition.

"They cleaned their [lid] like my kid cleans his room," Sheron said. "If we knew they had 3 to 4 inches of [boric acid] caked on top of the head . . . we probably would have re-thought whether we could approve anything beyond Dec. 31."

In a separate interview yesterday, NRC Chairman Richard Meserve said that he is "comfortable that in the aftermath of the Davis-Besse plant, there's been a very thorough examination of reactor vessel pressure heads. I am satisfied that the kind of corrosion that was found in there is not occurring anywhere else."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4282


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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