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Regulating the NRC

Tuesday, September 24, 2002 at 3:36 PM

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Last March, a football-sized hole was found in the lid of the reactor at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo. The first question on most people's lips was, how could this have happened? Answers to that question have slowly emerged over the last six months. But there is still no answer to a second question being asked by residents, government officials, and nuclear industry critics... why didn't federal regulators' oversight of Davis-Besse find the problem sooner? This month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to release a report that may provide some answers. But there's little likelihood the report will satisfy everyone. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.

Karen Schaefer: When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was set up in 1975, its primary focus was safety. Its predecessor - the Atomic Energy Commission - had been sharply criticized for trying to regulate safety issues while also promoting nuclear power. But even with its new mandate, the NRC quickly ran into difficulties. That same year a major fire at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama brought nuclear power - and the new agency - into public disrepute. And in 1979, the partial core meltdown at Three-Mile Island sparked a public outcry for more regulation. Since then, the NRC has frequently come under attack for not overseeing safety with sufficient rigor. So it came as no surprise when some people alarmed by damage found at the Davis-Besse plant began to protest.

‘2-4-6-8, NRC Can’t Regulate!’

In fact, the question of why federal regulators hadn’t uncovered unprecedented corrosion damage found at the plant was one that also occured to the NRC. The NRC’s Bill Dean says almost immediately, the agency set up a special task force to look into what regulators might have done better.

Bill Dean: Looking at the Lessons Learned Task Force and the recommendations they are going to make, I’m sure that you will see the NRC respond pretty promptly in terms of taking those lessons learned and making appropriate adjsutments to our process as warranted.

KS: But that wasn’t good enough for longtime nuclear industry watchdog David Lockbaum. Lockbaum, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, filed a Freedom-of-Information request for NRC documents relating to Davis-Besse. From his reading of those documents, Lockbaum says regulatory failures at the agency started showing up even before workers found a massive hole in the reactor in March.

David Lockbaum: The NRC’s process last year identified Davis-Besse as a safety problem. And they were in the process of drafting an order to shut the plant down, but didn’t. In the future, if this plant or any other plant crosses that line and the NRC thinks it has crossed that line, will they have the ability to shut down that plant before it’s too late?

KS: The problem was an industry-wide safety concern already documented at other plants. Nozzles through which coolant was inserted into the reactor were cracking, posing the risk of a potentially severe loss of coolant accident. Nobody knew it yet, but it was cracked nozzles at Davis-Besse that allowed boric acid to leak and eat a hole through the lid of the reactor. A year ago last August, the NRC asked plants to inspect for nozzle cracking. Brian Sharon is with the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation.

Brian Sharon: Mr. Lockbaum somehow is thinking that a bulletin we issued asking plants that hadn’t already done so to shut down and inspect by December 31 was a regulatory requirement. It was not.

KS: Requirement or not, by late fall only Davis-Besse and one other plant had still not performed the inspections. Lockbaum says the NRC’s paper trail shows the agency did prepare an order to shut the plant down, but never issued it. Instead Lockbaum says in November, top regulators decided to override safety concerns expressed by NRC engineers and allowed the plant to continue to operate until a planned refueling outage in mid-February.

DL: The NRC had five criteria they were using to shut the plant down. And in briefings to NRC.

BS: Management did not override any staff in terms of their recommendation. When it came to, is there a safety problem, the staff was unanimous in saying they didn’t have any safety problem with the plant continuing to operate through February 16th.

KS: Sharon points out that NRC staff based their decision solely on the safety issue of cracking nozzles. He says had the agency known there was a hole in the reactor, they would have shut the plant down immediately. But now two other federal agencies are investigating that decision. The Inspector General’s office, an independent unit of the NRC designed to audit the federal agency, wants to know if industry pressure had any influence on the agency’s apparent about-face. So does the General Accounting Office of the U.S. Congress. Neither investigation is likely to be completed before Davis-Besse is ready to re-open, although both could have implications for the agency’s oversight of the plant. In the meantime, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission anticipates that its own Lessons Learned Task Force will release its report by the end of the week. Regulators say some recommendations for change could be adopted immediately, but others could take some time. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

Additional Information

* Government Executive Magazine - Open Recommedations on NRC
* Union of Concerned Scientists - Anatomy of a Flawed Decision

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