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Regulator flip-flopped on Davis-Besse shutdown

ROCKVILLE, Md. - Records show that a senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission official who let Davis-Besse operate six weeks longer than his staff's recommendation was so leery about the nuclear plant's condition that he agreed it should be shut down early himself.

However, he backed off after hearing FirstEnergy Corp.'s financial pleas.

A partial transcript of an interview released yesterday could give credence to a scathing report issued Jan. 3 by the NRC's Office of Inspector General, in which the agency is accused of putting northern Ohio at risk in the fall of 2001 by refusing to execute a shutdown order that had been OK'd by agency attorneys, according to a leading nuclear watchdogs.

David Lochbaum, who used the federal Freedom of Information Act to obtain that interview transcript and others that formed the basis of the inspector general's report, said he finds it highly suspicious that the NRC's Sam Collins apparently reversed himself days after agreeing Davis-Besse had been dangerous.

As the NRC's nuclear reactor regulation director, Mr. Collins is the only government official authorized by the Atomic Energy Act to issue operating licenses and shutdown orders.

NRC staffers wanted the plant shut down no later than Dec. 31, 2001 because they feared its reactor-head nozzles were cracked and leaking. As it turned out, so much acid had gotten out of the reactor that the head nearly ruptured - a scenario that experts now say could have led to a Chernobyl-like meltdown if safety systems and the containment structure had, in turn, failed.

According to a transcript of his second interview with the inspector general's office, Mr. Collins said he had intended to issue the shutdown order when he forwarded it up the chain-of-command on Nov. 16, 2001, to William Travers, NRC executive director of operations. Five days later, the order was passed along to the full NRC board. Both of those reviews were informational only, because Mr. Collins - by law - had the final say.

“And on the 16th of November [2001], you forwarded to the EDO [Mr. Travers] saying this was your intent to issue these orders and the 21st [of November, 2001] it was forwarded up to the Commission as part of their required chain of events?” an interviewer asked.

“Correct,” Mr. Collins replied.

“Are you saying now that as of the 21st [of November 2001], you weren't comfortable signing the orders?”

“As of the 21st, I was comfortable in signing the orders if it would be necessary for us to use that order to ensure that the plant was in a safe condition,” Mr. Collins said.

NRC staffers received a memo on Nov. 21, 2001, summarizing a meeting that day between Mr. Collins and Robert Saunders, president of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., the utility's nuclear subsidiary.

The inspector general's office has claimed that meeting was pivotal to the decision Mr. Collins ultimately made - meeting the utility halfway and letting it keep operating Davis-Besse until Feb. 16, 2002, a date which skeptics have viewed as arbitrary. The company's originally scheduled refueling outage was to begin March 31, 2002, three months later than the shutdown date proposed by the NRC staff.

Investigators have said they were stunned to learn no record exists of the meeting in which Mr. Collins announced his decision: After months of interviews, they said they weren't even able to ascertain how many - let alone which - NRC officials attended it.

In striking that deal, Mr. Collins compromised public safety at the expense of corporate profits, according to the inspector general. Some NRC officials now concede that compensatory measures employed until Feb. 16 - including a slightly reduced operating temperature - provided little safety margin.

Mr. Lochbaum reiterated his belief yesterday that the NRC's decision was driven largely by its fear of a legal battle.

Shutdown orders are rare. The NRC hasn't formally gone through the process since 1987. The few issued in the agency's history were for plants in which problems were discovered after utilities had voluntarily shut them for refueling or other reasons, records show.

“FirstEnergy was prepared to fight. The NRC, rather than fight, chose to compromise,” Mr. Lochbaum said.

NRC staffers described their frustration in getting information from FirstEnergy in the fall of 2001 by saying it was “like pulling teeth,” according to the transcript.

FirstEnergy has disagreed. The company admits it erred by putting production ahead of safety during the 1990s, but said it would have shut down Davis-Besse itself if it had correctly interpreted the telltale signs, such as containment air filters clogged with rust particles every other day for almost three years.

Mr. Collins has declined requests for interviews since the inspector general's report, even after the state's largest activist group - Ohio Citizen Action - used the report to call for his ouster.

Outgoing NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, who is leaving in March to become president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, has backed Mr. Collins. In a memo sent Jan. 8 to NRC Inspector General Hubert T. Bell, Dr. Meserve called the internal investigation “unjustified, unfair, and misleading.”

But the inspector general's report has created a buzz on Capitol Hill, most recently during a Senate subcommittee hearing chaired by Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio. Other officials, including U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) are calling for congressional inquiries, saying the report alleges a fundamental breach of the NRC's mandate to hold safety above all cost considerations.

George Mulley, the report's author, said the tone could have been harsher. “We bent over backwards to be fair,” according to Mr. Mulley, the inspector general's senior level assistant for investigative operations.

According to the transcript, Mr. Collins also hinted at external pressure from unnamed politicians being placed upon Mr. Meserve and himself. He did not elaborate.

“There was also feedback at one point from the Chairman at a very high level just indicating his external interest in this and I indicated to him I'm aware of that,” Mr. Collins was quoted as saying.

An interviewer asked him to describe what he meant by external.

“My impression, we were talking about elected officials,” Mr. Collins said.

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