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Outgoing chief of NRC decries critical report

WASHINGTON - Outgoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve - under fire for his agency's admitted oversight lapses at FirstEnergy Corp.'s troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant - has fired back against internal critics.

In a seven-page memo sent Wednesday night to NRC Inspector General Hubert T. Bell, Dr. Meserve said a critical 25-page report issued by the inspector general's office last week was “unjustified, unfair, and misleading.”

“The report serves only to deflect attention from the real safety issue raised by the Davis-Besse episode, the unexpected [reactor] head corrosion,” Dr. Meserve wrote. “As you know, the NRC acknowledges its programmatic shortcomings concerning that matter and is addressing them. You have done a significant disservice by your release of such an unfair analysis.”

The memo, which had only limited distribution that night, was posted on the agency's Web site yesterday.

The NRC inspector general's report charged that senior NRC officials put profits ahead of safety - a serious breach of the agency's mandate - by cutting a compromise deal with FirstEnergy that allowed the utility to wait until Feb. 16 to shut down for refueling and safety inspections. Agency staffers had recommended and agency lawyers had approved an order for a more immediate shutdown Dec. 31, 2001. The order was drafted because NRC staffers had reason to believe Davis-Besse's reactor-head nozzles were cracked and leaking - a sign of a major equipment breakdown and safety risk at the plant, the NRC inspector general's office said.

FirstEnergy fought efforts for an early shutdown because of costs: A utility not only loses money when a nuclear plant is down, but it also risks having its financial rating impacted, according to the inspector general.

The shutdown order drafted for Davis-Besse would have been the first of its kind issued by the NRC since 1987. But it was nixed at the last minute by Sam Collins, the agency's powerful director of nuclear reactor regulation. By federal law, he is the only government official authorized to shut down plants and sign their operating licenses.

The inspector general claims Mr. Collins allowed himself to be persuaded in late November by financial concerns expressed by a top FirstEnergy official. Records show he met in Washington with Bob Saunders, president of the utility's nuclear subsidiary, and that Mr. Collins informed other NRC officials later that day of his decision to allow Davis-Besse to keep operating until Feb. 16.

Mr. Collins has declined numerous requests for interviews since the inspector general's report was released. Calls yesterday were referred to an agency public affairs spokesman, who said she had no comment.

As NRC officials later learned, the corrosion on the reactor head at Davis-Besse was much worse than expected: So much acid had leaked out of those nozzles that it nearly ate a hole through the reactor head. All that kept radioactive water inside the reactor from blowing out into the concrete containment building that protects the public was a paper-thin stainless steel liner - the industry's biggest near-miss since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

“The report speaks for itself,” said its author, George Mulley, the inspector general's senior level assistant for investigative operations.

The report focused on what the NRC knew at the time it struck the compromise with FirstEnergy - not information about the massive corrosion that has been learned since the plant was idled. Both the NRC and FirstEnergy have stated numerous times there is no way they would have allowed Davis-Besse to keep operating if they had known the true extent of the damage.

Dr. Meserve reiterated in his memo the NRC's previously-stated explanation for letting the plant continue operating until Feb. 16: because the regulatory agency believed the risk to northwest Ohio was “acceptably small.”

“The staff did not know about the head corrosion at the time of its decision and, quite frankly, it is Monday morning quarterbacking to question the decision on [reactor-head nozzle] cracking in the false light of subsequent knowledge,” the chairman wrote.

Dr. Meserve, who is stepping down in March to become president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, was not available for comment yesterday.

David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he was taken aback by the chairman's strong choice of words in his memo. “That is partly due to the fact he is leaving,” he said. “That's when you start thinking of your legacy. Davis-Besse probably isn't what he wants to be part of his legacy.”

Mr. Lochbaum's group instigated the inspector general report. A paper trail uncovered by that group and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service was the “strongest case I've seen in two decades” for shutting down a nuclear plant, he said.

He claimed the NRC had no business even waiting until Dec. 31, 2001, to shut down the plant. Once technical justification became strong enough that fall for the NRC to believe the nozzles could be leaking, the agency was bound by law to shut down the plant within six hours, but Mr. Collins chose to ignore the agency's own regulations, Mr. Lochbaum said.

He said he has studied pre-accident conditions documented in such high-profile cases as Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine. “None has had such strong signals as Davis-Besse,” Mr. Lochbaum said.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) responded to the inspector general's findings last week by saying she will renew her call for a congressional investigation into the NRC's oversight of Davis-Besse. She was not available yesterday, but a spokesman in her Washington office said she, too, was surprised by the tone of Dr. Meserve's memo. “It's rather unusual that the head of a department would strike out against the inspector general like that,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified.

It's unclear whether any investigation Miss Kaptur pursues will be separate from one that the investigative arm of Congress, the U.S. General Accounting Office, has recently agreed to undertake on behalf of U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland). Laura Kopelson, GAO spokesman, said the scope of that investigation is still being developed but confirmed Wednesday that one is forthcoming.

“I think it's very clear that the NRC and FirstEnergy work together to put profits ahead of safety,” said Doug Gorden, Mr. Kucinich's press secretary.

Richard Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman, has said the utility places safety paramount to all other concerns. He declined comment yesterday on Dr. Meserve's memo.

President Bush is to nominate a successor to Dr. Meserve soon, with his choice subject to Senate confirmation.

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