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Published: Saturday, 4/5/2003

New era at NRC?

A change at the helm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is being watched closely by those who live in the shadow of Davis-Besse. It is increasingly evident that a lack of aggressive oversight by the NRC - in the very least - along with careless local plant operation, brought northwest Ohio to the brink of a nuclear disaster a year ago.

The new NRC chairman, Dr. Nils Diaz, who succeeds Dr. Richard Meserve, can't continue the practice of government regulators who give dangerous latitude to the nuclear power industry.

Utilities are in business to make a profit, and when those considerations conflict with prudent safety measures - as evidenced by Davis Besse's perilously corroded reactor head - government overseers must act on behalf of the public's welfare.

In that regard, the NRC failed miserably in its duty with Davis-Besse, refusing to order the plant's shutdown long after it suspected serious problems.

The former NRC chair, Dr. Meserve, who left his post to head the Carnegie Institution in Washington, was far too defensive of his agency's cozy relationship with industry even after the NRC's own inspector general basically made the same observations.

The pro-business culture within the regulatory ranks of the NRC enabled Davis-Besse to operate when it clearly shouldn't have with a safety risk as great as an extensively damaged reactor head. Dr. Nils Diaz may come from that same culture as a former NRC commissioner but he'll have to rise above it as head of the agency entrusted with the public's safety.

His background as a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering sciences and director of a coalition of industries, universities, and national laboratories, should serve him in good stead as the new NRC chief. Dr. Diaz is also described as a nuclear advocate who spent years advising private industry and government as a nuclear engineering consultant.

While the senior Republican on the five-member NRC commission may have allowed partisan philosophy to influence his outlook on the rewards and risks of nuclear energy, he must establish a more accountable balance between the two as NRC leader.

It's the only hope for avoiding another Davis-Besse-like nightmare. We'll be watching.

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