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Published: Saturday, 5/21/2005

NRC to disband Besse watchdog panel

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

OAK HARBOR The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said yesterday it will soon disband the special oversight panel that has been the public s main avenue for first-hand information about Davis-Besse since 2002, although the agency said it would continue to keep a close eye on the Ottawa County nuclear plant for an indefinite period.

On March 10, 2004, NRC Chairman Nils Diaz told The Blade during an interview in Washington that the agency would not scale back on its oversight of FirstEnergy Corp. for at least three to five years.

Those comments came just two days after the NRC had given FirstEnergy Corp. the green light to restart Davis-Besse in the aftermath of what the agency itself has called the nation s closest brush with a nuclear meltdown since the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

But Viktoria Mitlyng, agency spokesman, said yesterday the decision to disband the oversight panel does not equate with less oversight of the plant.

She said Davis-Besse s current performance has been satisfactory, even though the NRC recently issued a record $5.45-million fine against the plant and even though a number of outstanding issues related to the near-rupture of its reactor head are still unresolved.

Those include possible criminal charges stemming from a grand jury investigation in Cleveland, the outcome of NRC and federal court appeals of a former Davis-Besse systems engineer who claims to have produced evidence of what the utility knew prior to the plant s 2002 shutdown, plus a follow-up inspection stemming from allegations that the utility has continued to provide inaccurate and incomplete information to the government. The latter is in regard to the prior status of emergency sirens in Ottawa and Lucas counties.

There have been other problems, such as the rough mid-winter shutdown that damaged Davis-Besse s cooling tower, apparently because of faulty procedures. But because the cooling tower is technically unrelated to safety, it doesn t fall under the NRC s domain.

It does not mean things are perfect. It just means the plant is on the right track, Ms. Mitlyng said of the NRC s decision to disband its panel. The panel will meet one last time at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Camp Perry clubhouse.

Paul Gunter of the Washington-based, anti-nuclear power Nuclear Information and Resource Service called the decision premature. He said he sees little reason to let this company off the short leash.

FirstEnergy believes it reflects the major improvements we ve made at Davis-Besse, said Gary Leidich, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company president and chief nuclear officer.

It also is an acknowledgment of our employees renewed commitment to safe operations, he said.

Utility spokesman Richard Wilkins called it another milestone, a pretty significant one for us.

Contact Tom Henry at:thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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