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Published: Friday, 10/24/2003

Inspecting the inspectors

While the sorry history of slipshod operations and sloppy maintenance has been well documented at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, it has never been fully clear how culpable the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was in allowing the plant to come so dangerously close to a nuclear disaster last year. Now we know how remarkably federal inspectors failed the public they were charged with protecting in northwest Ohio.

A 30-page report issued by the NRC's inspector general concludes that NRC inspectors stationed at the Ottawa County nuclear plant in 2000 - as the public's frontline defense against a nuclear catastrophe - were basically sleepwalking through the job. They seemed to duly note a nuclear meltdown in the making in their logbooks without attaching any real significance to it.

The red lights were all flashing for the resident inspectors to see. Photographs in April, 2000, showed heavy streaks of corrosive acid on Davis-Besse's reactor lid. Two years later an inspection of the reactor lid would show how the long-standing acid had chewed a football-sized hole through the lid, leaving only a thin stainless steel lining between high pressure coolant and a major nuclear accident.

Evidence of the growing corrosion was painfully apparent by what the leaking boric acid left behind - clumps of rust deposits and airborne rust particles. They damaged two air coolers in the hot radioactive containment room and clogged air filters on radiation monitors almost daily.

The Davis-Besse inspectors acknowledged the increasing problems associated with leaking coolant in logbooks that noted the frequency that boric acid had to be removed and filters replaced. But the report says the two full-time NRC inspectors, and possibly another from a regional office, who was at the plant in spring of 2000, “did not recognize the significance of boric acid corrosion.”

How is it possible that nuclear safety inspectors - presumed experts in their field - can miss the obvious significance of corrosion and steady leakage spilling from a nuclear reactor lid that contains thousands of gallons of highly radioactive coolant? Did they figure workers would simply take care of the problem with no oversight or follow-up?

The agency inspectors didn't even feel compelled to inform their Midwest regional supervisors about the leaking boric acid. But NRC officials in Chicago were nonetheless aware of corrosion concerns at Davis-Besse months before the damaged reactor was shut down. An earlier report from another inspector general investigation - roundly challenged by NRC brass - said the agency had plenty of evidence to shut down Davis-Besse in late 2001 but didn't, in deference to the financial considerations of owner FirstEnergy Corp.

The company continued to operate the plant until February, 2002, when its reactor head had become so thin it nearly burst.

For its part the NRC says it's committed to addressing the failings noted in the inspector general's report and has begun to improve its regulatory responsibilities, but actions speak louder than words. Last summer the head of the NRC's Midwest office and the agency's director of reactor licensing and inspections at its Maryland headquarters were both promoted.

The Blade has also learned one of the resident plant inspectors investigated by the agency's watchdog has been hired by FirstEnergy as an engineer.

Now we know how little the public welfare figures into the equation between regulator and utility.



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