Government Looks For Reasons Plant Stayed Open

OAK HARBOR, Ohio (AP) - Federal officials are investigating whether senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffers succumbed to politics or industry pressure when they let FirstEnergy Corp. operate the Davis-Besse nuclear plant six weeks past a scheduled shutdown date.

George Mulley, NRC deputy assistant inspector general for investigations, told The (Toledo) Blade for a story on Thursday that his office is examining if anything other than scientific or technical information influenced the decision.

In December, some NRC staff members argued that the agency should have issued what would have been its first emergency shutdown order for a U.S. nuclear plant since 1987.

"We want to know if the decision was based on a technical review -- not on political or industry pressure," Mulley said.

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said on Thursday that the company and the NRC agreed to a Feb. 16 refueling shutdown date so the NRC could inspect the plant.

The NRC originally wanted to do the inspection at the end of December, while FirstEnergy hoped the agency would wait until the plant's original scheduled refueling shutdown in April, Schneider said.

The two sides then reached an agreement for the date in February, Schneider said, adding that FirstEnergy did not place any "undue pressure" on NRC officials to influence their decision.

In March, inspectors discovered that boric acid had nearly eaten through a 6-inch thick steel cap that covers the reactor vessel at Davis-Besse, located near Toledo in this city along Lake Erie.

It was the most extensive corrosion found on a U.S. nuclear reactor and led to a nationwide review of all 69 similar plants.

Reviews found no damage in other plants but did reveal a need for more inspections.

Mulley said the NRC inspector general's office also wants to determine why the agency was admittedly caught off guard by the extent of corrosion on Davis-Besse's reactor head during an inspection that occurred after the February shutdown.

The inspector general wants to know whether that discovery came as a surprise because of a regulatory breakdown within the NRC, Mulley said.

"After we got into this thing, it became apparent we have two separate issues," he said.

A report from the NRC inspector general's office is expected this fall, he said.

Meanwhile, the NRC's criminal investigative arm is interviewing 33 current and former Davis-Besse employees. Other than to confirm it is one of several investigations under way, NRC spokesman Jan Strasma declined to comment to The Blade.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)