The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday cited FirstEnergy Corp. for failing to provide complete and accurate records about Davis-Besse's interior paint coatings, but let the utility off the hook without a fine.
The federal agency empowered to police the nuclear industry has not fined FirstEnergy in the wake of its shutdown on Feb. 16, 2002, which led to discovery of a dangerously corroded reactor head.
Davis-Besse, by the NRC's conservative estimates, had a reactor head so corroded that the power plant 30 miles east of Toledo was within five months of a nuclear accident as serious as Three Mile Island's in 1979.
The NRC yesterday hit FirstEnergy with a Severity Level III violation for providing false information about the coatings. The utility could have faced a base fine of $55,000, with the possibility of it being higher due to a variety of factors.
Instead, the NRC waived the fine, at FirstEnergy's request.
Jan Strasma, NRC spokesman, said the agency was pleased that the utility had volunteered information about the coatings and had agreed to repaint and scrape most of the affected areas prior to the March 8 restart.
There was another mitigating factor: The NRC's five-year statute of limitations had expired.
Records show that FirstEnergy filed the false information with the NRC on Nov. 11, 1998, a report alleging that paint coatings inside Davis-Besse's reactor containment area were "qualified." Qualified coatings are not as prone to chip as unqualified coatings.
The issue rose after the NRC learned in early 2003 that paint chips and fibrous insulation could clog Davis-Besse's emergency coolant system during a major accident. A clogged cooling system could complicate the task of cooling the hot reactor and open the possibility of a core meltdown, officials have said.
On Sept. 15, FirstEnergy conceded that its 1998 information was in error. Five weeks later the NRC performed an on-site review of FirstEnergy's records from Oct. 20 through Oct. 24.
On Nov. 12 - five years and a day after the 1998 report had been filed - the NRC held an exit meeting with FirstEnergy to present its preliminary findings. The agency issued a report documenting an apparent violation on Jan. 28, then gave the utility its standard 30 days to contest it. FirstEnergy on Feb. 27 acknowledged that it was in violation of NRC regulations, but asked that no fine be imposed due to its cooperation.
Jim Caldwell, the NRC's Midwest regional administrator, said in his letter to FirstEnergy yesterday that although he's waiving the fine, he's still issuing the violation "to emphasize the importance of providing complete and accurate information to the NRC."
But David Lochbaum, a high-profile nuclear industry watch dog, said the only take-home message he got from Mr. Caldwell's letter was that if utility officials "can stonewall the agency for five years, [they] can get away with it."
Mr. Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he was incensed that the NRC had let FirstEnergy off with another warning, saying it's the latest example of how the agency has gotten too cozy with the industry it's supposed to regulate.
"We need to get an NRC that's not evil and not inept," he said. "It's just unbelievable."
Mr. Strasma said the NRC did not stall its enforcement process until the statute of limitations expired. A decision on a fine could not have been made before the Nov. 12 meeting because the NRC was only at the point of giving its preliminary findings at an exit meeting.
"It's not like the traffic cop writing a ticket on the spot. We have to do things according to our legal procedures," he said.
Mr. Lochbaum said he believes the NRC should have been questioning the quality of paint coatings and other materials immediately after the pineapple-size cavity was discovered in Davis-Besse's reactor head on March 6, 2002. He said the NRC needs to either speed things up or get Congress to pass laws that give the agency more time.
In August, the NRC classified the faulty design of Davis-Besse's emergency coolant system as a problem that had "substantial safety significance." The agency issued a "yellow" finding against FirstEnergy, but did not levy a fine because it claimed there was no evidence of willful misconduct.
A yellow finding is one notch below the most serious issued by the NRC - its "red" finding for problems deemed to be of the highest safety concern. The NRC issued a red finding against FirstEnergy on Feb. 25, 2003, for letting Davis-Besse's reactor head become so corroded that it nearly burst.
The degradation was unprecedented in U.S. nuclear history. The NRC has delayed consideration of a civil fine until a criminal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice is completed.
A grand jury in Cleveland has been considering whether criminal charges should be filed for endangering public safety.
Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said the utility was pleased to avoid a fine, although he and other company officials have said in the past they expect the company to receive one for the reactor head problem.
FirstEnergy earlier this week was ranked No. 1 on a list of 30 major utilities that have made political contributions to President Bush, with $865,877 in donations since 1999.
For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse
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