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Published: Thursday, 2/26/2004

Lessons not learned

EVEN after the Davis-Besse debacle, the federal overseers of the nation's nuclear power industry still don't understand what was at the core of the industry's biggest crisis in the last quarter of a century.

Communications at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to its own internal watchdog, remain as poor today as they were when the nuclear plant near Oak Harbor almost became the next Three Mile Island disaster.

The NRC's inspector general's office conducted a follow-up investigation to an earlier one it released that concluded the agency had plenty of evidence to shut down Davis-Besse long before it did and refrained from doing so to protect the financial interests of FirstEnergy. In other words, safety took a back seat to the utility's production schedule - with the NRC's blessing.

The NRC vehemently disputed the damning report last January, calling it "unjustified, unfair, and misleading." But then the agency got busy crafting an "action plan" to make sure what happened to the dangerously corroded lid of the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor didn't recur elsewhere.

Like NASA in the aftermath of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, the NRC acknowledged some institutional shortcomings revealed by its head-in-the-sand approach to Davis-Besse as it moved dangerously close to a calamity. But the federal regulators assured the inspector general their problems had been addressed and corrected.

NRC Deputy Executive Director Sam Collins listed agency changes recommended by its Lessons Learned Task Force that would lead to improved scrutiny of utilities with a special emphasis on spotting corrosion and other red-flag conditions at nuclear power plants.

"You've got the corrosion thing nailed," responded George Mulley, the inspector general's senior assistant for investigative operations. "Our concern is what if another technical issue comes along next year? What's being done to assure some of the same lapses don't occur?"

The latest findings of the agency's independent investigative arm suggest the NRC has not tackled the root cause of what brought the country to the brink of a major nuclear accident. And without addressing the system-wide lack of communication at the NRC, warns Mr. Mulley, "our concern is that if something like [Davis-Besse] happened again, the results would be the same."

Or much worse. The agency says it will answer the inspector general's charges within 30 days. We look forward to that response. But for now it appears disturbingly clear that some critical lessons from Davis-Besse about lost public accountability have yet to be learned.



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