April 21, 2005
NRC’s Proposed Fine Against Nuclear Operator FirstEnergy Does Not Absolve Agency of Its Failures; Lax Regulation Led to Serious Safety Violations at Ohio Nuclear Plant
Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) proposed $5.45 million fine, announced today, against FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company for safety violations at its Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio, is too little too late, and it does not forgive the NRC for failing to properly enforce its own regulations.
Both the NRC and FirstEnergy are at fault in the mismanagement that allowed severe degradation of the nuclear reactor vessel head to go unnoticed for years until it was finally discovered in March 2002 that a mere three-eighths of an inch of metal cladding was all that contained the hot reactor core, a dire situation that could have easily led to a reactor breach and potential meltdown. The fine against FirstEnergy is deserved, to be sure, but it does not correct the NRC’s troubling emphasis on plant performance and profitability, which inhibited an earlier shutdown and inspection of the troubled plant.
A December 2002 report by the NRC’s inspector general (IG) found that the NRC’s decision to allow the continued operation of Davis-Besse “was driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact on FENOC [FirstEnergy] that would result from an early shutdown.” The IG further concluded that the “NRC appears to have informally established an unreasonably high burden of requiring absolute proof of a safety problem, versus lack of reasonable assurance of maintaining public health and safety, before it will act to shut down a power plant.”
While the proposed fine is significant—the largest ever proposed by the NRC—it does not correct a heavily pro-industry bias that has compromised the agency’s capacity for effective regulatory oversight and discipline. The NRC allowed the Davis-Besse plant to restart in March 2004, and it has recently approved a slew of power uprates (increases in power generation) and license renewals for operators of stressed, aging nuclear plants, indicating a preference for performance over robust and thorough regulation.
FirstEnergy should be disciplined for its mismanagement, and the fine is deserved, but more stringent oversight by the NRC is the key to preventing the kind of malfeasance that nearly led to disaster in Ohio.