Cites Safety Issues at Nuclear Commission
The New York Times, Washington, January 3,
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission could have shut
down a nuclear power plant in Ohio several months before an acid leak
was discovered but wanted to avoid hurting the plant owner financially,
the agency's watchdog said Friday.
The NRC's Office of Inspector General concluded
that top agency safety officials had ``strong justification'' to order
the Davis-Besse plant shut down earlier because of concerns over public
Davis-Besse, near Toledo, was among 12 nuclear power
plants the NRC identified in fall 2001 as being ``highly susceptible''
to corrosion or cracking. All but Davis-Besse had been shut down for
inspections by January 2002.
After small cracks were found in at least five other
plants, the NRC drafted a letter on Nov. 16, 2001, requiring the 25-year-old
Davis-Besse plant to shut down. But the inspector general's report said
the agency backed off when plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. said such a
shutdown would be costly and could cause wintertime power shortages
in northwest Ohio.
The NRC allowed Davis-Besse to continue operating
until Feb. 16. In March, inspectors discovered that leaking acid had
nearly eaten through the 6-inch-thick steel cap that covers the plant's
The plant has remained closed since the damage --
the most extensive corrosion ever at a U.S. nuclear reactor -- was discovered.
Despite strong evidence that Davis-Besse could have
cracks, the NRC allowed the plant to continue operating because it couldn't
prove the plant was damaged. The report called that standard ``an unreasonably
high burden'' that does not take into account public health and safety.
``There's no way to get absolute proof until it's
too late,'' said David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union
of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based environmental group that
had raised concerns about the NRC's handling of Davis-Besse.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said the report shows
that ``FirstEnergy and the NRC worked together to put profits above
public safety. It's unacceptable.''
NRC Chairman Richard Meserve defended the agency's
actions, saying officials made the right decisions based on the information
available at the time.
``Safety is in fact our highest priority,'' Meserve
told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. ``You're faced with a situation where
you had some uncertainty about conditions in the plant.''
The commission is reviewing the report to see what
actions, if any, it will take in response to the findings, spokesman
Victor Dricks said. The NRC has 90 days to file a formal response.
Meserve announced last month that he will resign
from the agency at the end of March, more than a year before his term
expires, to become president of a prominent research center in Washington.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative
arm of Congress, is looking into why the plant continued to operate
despite the concerns.
FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said Friday
the company's own investigation concluded that Davis-Besse managers
overemphasized production goals at the expense of safety concerns.
``Ten managers and executives have left the company
as a result of this,'' he said.
But Schneider said that before the shutdown, the
Akron-based company was unaware that there was any potential for acid
to damage the reactor head.
On the Net:
Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov
FirstEnergy Corp.: http://www.firstenergycorp.com