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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2004

Davis-Besse problems blamed on lax oversight

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Davis-Besse stands out as a vivid reminder that the public is never completely out of danger if government and industry officials don t stay on their toes and avoid a repeat of the complacency problem that led to the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission s governing board said yesterday.

“Complacency clearly played a role at Davis-Besse,” NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan, Jr. said near the end of a 21/2-hour program at the NRC s headquarters in Rockville, Md. yesterday that was devoted to the upcoming 25th anniversary of the meltdown near Harrisburg, Pa.

“I think there was complacency at the NRC in that we were fighting other wars and didn t have the right people there” at Davis-Besse, he said.

The NRC s Office of Inspector General said in an October report the agency needs to shoulder part of the blame for the near-rupture of Davis-Besse s reactor head, because it had allowed its Midwest regional office near Chicago to be distracted by issues at other plants.

NRC officials have said lax enforcement at Davis-Besse seemed reasonable at the time because they had given FirstEnergy Corp. high marks on earlier evaluations.

The inspector general has said those scores raise even more questions about a controversial method the NRC began using a few years ago to evaluate plants. The internal probe revealed that at least one NRC resident inspector saw a photograph of Davis-Besse s reactor head with heavy rust streaks during the plant s 2000 outage - but didn t know what to make of the picture.

Unbeknownst to the NRC, a problem of unparalleled magnitude festered for years at Davis-Besse. The agency was so clueless to the extent of the reactor head s problem that its immediate focus after the plant was shut down on Feb. 16, 2002 was on an entirely different - and considerably smaller - problem, officials have said.

Mr. McGaffigan, one of three commissioners holding seats on the NRC s five-member governing board, said yesterday he believes one of the root causes at both Davis-Besse and Three Mile Island was denial.

An overconfidence problem at Davis-Besse prior to that plant s 2002 shutdown mirrored the overconfidence problem before the meltdown that began March 28, 1979, at Three Mile Island s No. 2 reactor, he said.

He said he hopes Davis-Besse “has ended the complacency here and within the industry for a long time.”

NRC Chairman Nils Diaz agreed.

Complacency “should not be” possible today, but the NRC needs to remain on guard for it, Dr. Diaz said. “We have seen a few cases [of complacency] that have led to extended shutdowns here and abroad,” he said.

Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield and Bill Travers, the NRC s executive director of operations, agreed that fighting complacency is one of the agency s biggest challenges - or the public faces the risk of history repeating itself.

“Using a rear-view mirror for judging where you are now is not always accurate,” Mr. Merrifield said. “We must continue to have a questioning attitude.”

Three Mile Island is the only meltdown in U.S. nuclear history, although the extent of core damage wasn t known until 1985. Radioactive gases were vented to the atmosphere, but were nothing in comparison to what happened as a result of the explosion at Russia s Chernobyl nuclear plant near Kiev in 1986. That s largely because American reactors, unlike Chernobyl, are shielded by concrete-and-steel containment structures.

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse



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