Feds Let Suspect Nuke Plant Run

Workers in Davis-Besse nuclear power plant control room, Oak Harbor, Ohio, 1998/7/9.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission could have shut down a nuclear power plant several months before an acid leak was discovered but wanted to avoid hurting the plant owner financially, according to a report by the agency's watchdog.

The NRC's Office of Inspector General concluded that top agency safety officials had "strong justification" to order the Davis-Besse plant shut down early because of concerns over public safety, The Plain Dealer reported Friday. The newspaper obtained the document before its public release.

According to the inspector general report, the agency struck a deal with plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. to allow it to continue making energy at Davis-Besse until Feb. 16 of this year, instead of shutting down for an inspection before the end of 2001.

The agency had enough information at the time to suspect that there were cracks in the 6-inch-thick steel cap that covers the plant's reactor vessel, the report concluded.

The company had told NRC that shutting the reactor before the planned maintenance shutdown in February could be costly and could cause power shortages in Ohio.

Inspectors in March discovered that leaking acid had nearly eaten through the reactor lid. It was the most extensive corrosion ever at a U.S. nuclear reactor, and brought the country the closest it has been to a nuclear disaster since the 1979 Three-Mile Island incident.

The damage was discovered during the maintenance shutdown, and the plant, near Toledo, has remained closed.

The NRC in December revealed that regulators had suspected there could be leaks at the plant, but allowed it to stay open a few more weeks because they didn't think there was much risk.

If the steel seal had failed, water used to cool the reactor would have leaked out. Emergency systems are in place to replace that water and keep the reactor temperature within safe levels, but those backup systems have failed on occasion.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich said the report shows that "FirstEnergy and the NRC worked together to put profits above public safety. It's unacceptable."

But NRC Chairman Richard Meserve defended the agency's actions at Davis-Besse.

"Safety is in fact our highest priority," Meserve told the newspaper. "You're faced with a situation where you had some uncertainty about conditions in the plant."

Meserve, who has 90 days to prepare a formal response to the report, said NRC officials made the right decisions based on the information they had available at the time.

Meserve announced last month 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 inspector general decided to investigate after receiving complaints from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group that supports tighter safety rules for nuclear plants.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also 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 the managers at Davis-Besse put too much emphasis on production goals and not enough on safety concerns.

"Ten managers and executives have left the company as a result of this," he said.

But Schneider added that before the shutdown, the Akron-based company was unaware that there was any potential for acid to damage the reactor head.