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Deregulation called factor in Besse lapse

ROCKVILLE, Md. - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's reluctance to enforce a shutdown order it had prepared for Davis-Besse in the fall of 2001 helps illustrate how the burden of proof for safety issues has shifted from utilities to the government under deregulation, according to a nuclear safety engineer's analysis.

David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists said yesterday the decision made at the NRC's headquarters here on Nov. 28, 2001, would not have happened years ago if the agency had an inkling of a serious problem emerging at a nuclear plant.

He cited a 32-page transcript of a March 13, 1979, news conference, two weeks before the Three Mile Island accident, in which the NRC immediately ordered repairs at five nuclear plants deemed vulnerable to having some computers malfunction in the event of an earthquake.

The agency's nuclear reactor regulation director at the time, Harold Denton, said he feared earthquakes could affect not only piping systems, but also the emergency core cooling systems if such malfunctions occurred. Four of the potentially affected plants were already shut down. Beaver Valley 1, west of Pittsburgh, immediately went offline without challenging the NRC order.

Contrast that to the stalemate the NRC was locked in with Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. in the fall of 2001, when Davis-Besse was one of a dozen plants deemed most vulnerable to having circumferential cracks in their reactor-head nozzles, Mr. Lochbaum said.

Circular-shaped cracks in reactor-head nozzles had never been seen in the United States until early 2001 at the Oconee complex in South Carolina. The NRC considered them especially dangerous at high-pressure plants like Davis-Besse, because the ends could pop off like champagne corks. That would allow radioactive steam to form in the containment building, officials have said.

FirstEnergy, which now owns both Beaver Valley plants as well as Davis-Besse, refused to shut down Davis-Besse in the fall of 2001 when the NRC claimed it suspected a problem. According to interview transcripts of depositions, some NRC employees feared the agency would be sued if it enforced a shutdown order written for Dec. 31, 2001.

Ultimately, Sam Collins - who now serves as the agency's nuclear reactor regulation director - refused to execute the shutdown order and let Davis-Besse keep operating until Feb. 16, 2002. The problem surpassed everyone's fears on March 6, 2002 when a football-sized cavity was found in Davis-Besse's reactor head, exposing all but a thin liner that had started to buckle and crack.

The fine line of how the NRC perceives its regulatory power was discussed in January in a report issued by the NRC's Office of Inspector General. The report claimed the NRC talked itself out of issuing the shutdown order, in part because deregulation has clouded its authority.

“Since the early 1990s, the U.S. electric industry has moved away from traditional rate-based regulation toward increased competition in a deregulated marketplace. Prior to deregulation, a power producer could pass on most of its costs to consumers, including costs associated with a forced shutdown by a federal regulator,” the report said.

“Under today's deregulation, more costs are borne by the corporate shareholders rather than the consumers, and utilities seek to keep these costs low,” it said. “During this same time period, [the] NRC established as one of its performance goals the reduction of unnecessary regulatory burden.”

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