Filed at 7:11 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission could have shut
down a nuclear power plant in Ohio several months before an acid leak was
discovered but wanted to avoid hurting the plant owner financially, the
agency's watchdog said Friday.
The NRC's Office of Inspector General concluded that top agency safety
officials had ``strong justification'' to order the Davis-Besse plant shut
down earlier because of concerns over public safety.
Davis-Besse, near Toledo, was among 12 nuclear power plants the NRC
identified in fall 2001 as being ``highly susceptible'' to corrosion or
cracking. All but Davis-Besse had been shut down for inspections by
After small cracks were found in at least five other plants, the NRC
drafted a letter on Nov. 16, 2001, requiring the 25-year-old Davis-Besse
plant to shut down. But the inspector general's report said the agency
backed off when plant owner FirstEnergy
Corp. said such a shutdown would be costly and could cause
wintertime power shortages in northwest Ohio.
The NRC allowed Davis-Besse to continue operating until Feb. 16. In
March, inspectors discovered that leaking acid had nearly eaten through
the 6-inch-thick steel cap that covers the plant's reactor vessel.
The plant has remained closed since the damage -- the most extensive
corrosion ever at a U.S. nuclear reactor -- was discovered.
Despite strong evidence that Davis-Besse could have cracks, the NRC
allowed the plant to continue operating because it couldn't prove the
plant was damaged. The report called that standard ``an unreasonably high
burden'' that does not take into account public health and safety.
``There's no way to get absolute proof until it's too late,'' said
David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned
Scientists, a Washington-based environmental group that had raised
concerns about the NRC's handling of Davis-Besse.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said the report shows that ``FirstEnergy
and the NRC worked together to put profits above public safety. It's
NRC Chairman Richard Meserve defended the agency's actions, saying
officials made the right decisions based on the information available at
``Safety is in fact our highest priority,'' Meserve told The
(Cleveland) Plain Dealer. ``You're faced with a situation where you had
some uncertainty about conditions in the plant.''
The commission is reviewing the report to see what actions, if any, it
will take in response to the findings, spokesman Victor Dricks said. The
NRC has 90 days to file a formal response.
Meserve announced last month that he will resign from the agency at the
end of March, more than a year before his term expires, to become
president of a prominent research center in Washington.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is
looking into why the plant continued to operate despite the concerns.
FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said Friday the company's own
investigation concluded that Davis-Besse managers overemphasized
production goals at the expense of safety concerns.
``Ten managers and executives have left the company as a result of
this,'' he said.
But Schneider said that before the shutdown, the Akron-based company
was unaware that there was any potential for acid to damage the reactor
On the Net:
Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov