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New York asks NRC for more vigilance

08/16/02

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington

- The New York attorney general's office has joined critics of the way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and FirstEnergy Corp. missed signs of dangerous problems at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant.

Saying the NRC and utilities are repeatedly failing to "connect the dots," the New York attorney general's office has asked the NRC to establish a new investigative group with a more questioning attitude.

"The NRC should enhance its office of Inspector General through the establishment of an independent unit . . . authorized to investigate off-normal and other conditions before accidents occur," Peter Skinner, chief scientist in the attorney general's environmental protection branch, wrote in a letter to the NRC on Wednesday. "This new office should be staffed by qualified investigators, scientists and engineers."

New York is downwind of Ohio, which is why New Yorkers should be concerned about possible radiation leaks at Davis-Besse, Skinner said.

Furthermore, the failure to notice that leaking boric acid had eaten a hole in the reactor vessel head was only the latest in a series of NRC failures, Skinner said, noting that the hole left only a thin stainless-steel liner to prevent an accident "which could have progressed to a meltdown."

The NRC's performance at Davis-Besse, 21 miles east of Toledo, is of note to New Yorkers not only because of the potential of radiation drift. The Davis-Besse incident and the NRC's dealings with the plant before the discovery of the hole are eerily similar to the missed signs of problems at the Indian Point power plant in Westchester County just north of New York City, critics say.

On Feb. 15, 2000, a steam generator tube ruptured at Indian Point and released a small amount of radiation. NRC staff had worried about possible ruptures and was aware of some leakage in 1999 at the plant. But, for fear of being overly burdensome, it failed to ask the plant owner, Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, all the questions it had, according to an NRC Inspector General's report.

Skinner sent his letter to a special NRC "lessons-learned" task force. The task force is examining how and why NRC inspectors and administrators overlooked signs of potential trouble at Davis-Besse.

NRC brass, overruling the concerns of NRC staff that the plant should be shut down immediately, allowed it to keep operating, though the NRC was asking other utilities to shut down for inspections.

Davis-Besse operated for more than a decade with increasing signs that highly corrosive boric acid deposits were building on the lid of the reactor, but did little to correct the situation.

"If I showed even a part of the warning flags that were available, I think my 13-year-old would have said, 'Geez, I think you've got a bad leak, you ought to go look real carefully,' " Skinner said in a telephone interview.

Art Howell, the team leader for the NRC lessons-learned task force, said his group would review Skinner's correspondence and consider its recommendations. The task force will issue its report and recommendations in late September, Howell said.

The NRC is still studying how dangerous the situation was at Davis-Besse.

FirstEnergy has said there was never a risk because the stainless steel cladding held the high-pressure reactor intact.

Skinner is more skeptical, noting that the boron had eaten a large hole through 6 inches of carbon steel, leaving only the thin shell - a shell that was never intended to protect the reactor's vessel boundary.

"There was no reactor vessel left, except the cladding," he said. "It's altogether too close for comfort."

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider declined to comment on Skinner's correspondence, since it was addressed to the NRC and covered NRC procedures.

Asked if increased NRC vigilance would have caught the Davis-Besse problem earlier, Schneider said, "I don't know. It depends on the scope of the team and when they would come in. There are inspectors at the plants now, and the NRC itself is looking at its organization to see how they can improve. And that's valuable."

For complete coverage of Davis-Besse, go to www.cleveland.com/davisbesse/

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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