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Nuclear -     1 - Duke Energy Employee Advocate

Nuclear - Page 28

How Scary? ‘Chernobyl Scary’

The News & Observer – by Molly Hennessy-Fiske – March 7, 2003

(3/5/03) - For the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in southern Wake County withstood a mock disaster Tuesday -- a sign, emergency officials said, that they are ready for the worst.

But critics said the catastrophe scenario -- a mechanical failure in the reactor -- didn't account for increased terrorist threats and the mass evacuations they could spawn.

The public didn't notice the drill -- there were no sirens or evacuations. Instead, about 200 Progress Energy and local emergency management officials scattered across four counties huddled to decide when to evacuate neighborhoods, alert schools and respond to dangerous rumors.

The drill is required every two years, a mandate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a condition of Progress Energy's license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to run the plant. Federal officials were on hand Tuesday, and FEMA will grade the response and release results Thursday.

Such drills were begun more than 20 years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in response to another event: the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa. But the drills have attracted national attention only recently amid rising homeland security anxiety and alerts.

Communities near nuclear plants in New York and Massachusetts have questioned safety and demanded changes. Unlike those plants, Shearon Harris has an up-to-date safety record with the NRC and has not logged any recent safety training violations or failed FEMA drills.

Tuesday's exercise went smoothly, officials said, despite a series of scheduled disruptions, beginning with the 9:24 a.m. alert.

Emergency operations staffers from Chatham, Harnett, Lee and Wake counties simulated sirens at 10:42 a.m. and responded at 1:16 p.m. to an alert that radioactive material had been released into the air by declaring a general emergency. By the time the drill ended at 3 p.m., they had ordered evacuations of swaths of Chatham, Harnett and Lee counties within 10 miles of the plant because those residents face the most immediate danger from radiation.

The sirens would have alerted residents to turn on televisions and radios for evacuation instructions. Progress Energy also distributes information to area residents, schools and businesses.

Although the drill simulated a mechanical problem, plant officials said it could have been related to homeland security, which they said is also taken into account during regular safety drills.

"The actual response to a terrorist incident would be similar," said Roger Hannah, an NRC regional spokesman in Atlanta. "You would still look at the potential for a radiological release and what the impact would be on people."

But critics said a terrorist attack would prompt bigger evacuations than local emergency officials are prepared to orchestrate.

The drill "pats the public on the head and tells them everything's OK,"said Stanley Goff, a former West Point instructor and a security analyst with the environmental group N.C. WARN.

Goff said that instead of targeting the reactor, terrorists probably would aim for fuel pools at the plant that hold radioactive waste. Plant managers "don't want to look at that because then the scenario becomes much scarier," he said.

How scary?

"Chernobyl scary," he said, citing the world's worst nuclear disaster, in Russia in 1986.

About 41,000 people live within a 10-mile radius of Shearon Harris, an area the federal government requires emergency managers to closely monitor. They estimate it can be evacuated within four to five hours, said Renee Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. But state and county agencies also must plan for a 50-mile radius that includes 2 million people, a quarter of the state's population.

An evacuation study due out next month from Orange County Emergency Management could gauge how prepared local agencies are to deal with a crisis of those proportions.

Orange County commissioner Margaret W. Brown, one of several elected officials to criticize evacuation plans after the last drill at Shearon Harris, said she is still waiting for changes.

"Without knowing that, that there's any new evacuation model, it would seem we're in the same position we've always been in: that there's an unfeasible, unworkable plan," Brown said.

Hoffman said county emergency management offices update evacuation plans annually to reflect population changes and take into account nursing home, school and prison evacuation routes. But even some plant supporters, including Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears, said the plans need improvement.

"I think we still have some work to do," Sears said Tuesday. He plans to speak at Holly Springs Elementary this month about evacuation plans, which now rely on a single route out of town. "We have to look at more than one evacuation route," said the mayor of the state's fastest-growing town. "Maybe we need three or four."

Al Qaeda Targeted Pearl Harbor

Washington Times – March 5, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 3 (UPI) -- Militants linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network have targeted U.S. military facilities in Pearl Harbor, including nuclear-powered submarines and ships, The Washington Times reported Monday.

In the past two weeks, U.S. officials received intelligence reports about the terrorist threat to the Hawaiian harbor and these coincided with reports of the planning of a major attack by al Qaida, the group blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington.

The Times said the reports were one reason why the threat level was raised from yellow to orange. Last week, the alert status was again lowered to yellow or elevated.

The newspaper quoted officials familiar with the reports as saying al Qaida was planning to attack Pearl Harbor because of its symbolic value and because its military facilities are open from the air.

Officials told the newspaper that hijacked airliners would be flown into submarines or ships docked at Pearl Harbor.

"The targeting includes nuclear ships and submarines and military facilities in the Pearl Harbor area," a defense official told the Times.

Thirty Navy and Coast Guard warships, including 18 nuclear submarines, five destroyers and two frigates, are stationed at the harbor.

The Times said another target on Hawaii was the Hickam Air Force Base, located near Honolulu airport. On Sept. 11, two hijacked airliners were used to down the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon near Washington and fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.

A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command, based in Hawaii, did not comment on the Times report.

The newspaper quoted a defense official in Hawaii as saying no extra security measures had been taken in response to the reports.

"All the installations down here are on a pretty high state of security and have been for a number of months," the official said. "Security at Pearl Harbor has been at a heightened state for some time."

The official said, however, security had been increased at Honolulu International Airport.

Watchdog Hounds NRC

Associated Press – March 5, 2003

OAK HARBOR, Ohio (AP) - A watchdog group accuses the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of being afraid to challenge the operator of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant.

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a 29-page analysis of the NRC's decision to allow the plant to postpone safety inspections in the fall of 2001.

The group charged that the agency's top officials knew that granting the six-week delay was wrong.

The plant, located near Toledo, has been shut down since last February, when it was closed for maintenance. One month later, a leak was discovered that had allowed boric acid to eat nearly through the 6-inch-thick steel cap covering the plant's reactor vessel. A liner under the hole was still in place.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the watchdog group, said the NRC backed down to FirstEnergy Corp.

The group said that the agency gave the company's financial concerns too much weight and that top agency officials knew the plant probably was leaking.

It also said the NRC used analytical procedures inappropriately to justify allowing Davis-Besse to operate beyond the commission's Dec. 31, 2001, inspection deadline.

The group also found that the NRC's Washington-based supervisors made the decision without much contact with the agency's Chicago regional office, which oversees Davis-Besse.

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said he hadn't been able to reach a commission official to comment on the group's report. FirstEnergy's spokesman had no comment.

The company believes it will be ready to restart the plant by next month, but the NRC says inspections should last at least through May.

The group's study is based on about 1,000 pages of transcripts of depositions taken by the NRC's inspector general in interviews with federal and FirstEnergy officials and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The inspector general already has been critical of the commission in a separate report to Congress.

Lochbaum's analysis is based on testimony from top officials, including Samuel Collins, the NRC's head of reactor regulation. The analysis describes the compensatory measures that FirstEnergy proposed so it could be allowed to operate six weeks longer as meaningless ``window dressing.''

``All of those (compensatory measures), that's nice to have, and it may be enough to move some people ... from one place to another,'' Collins testified. ``But when you get right down to what impact is on risk and significance, it's not that great.''

Lochbaum's findings are similar to those of an NRC analyst whose letter to commission officials was made public last week.

Steven Long of the NRC staff said that the risk analysis FirstEnergy used in arguing that the plant was safe was inappropriate because neither the company nor the agency had enough data about Davis-Besse to make it valid.

INPO Cites Management Problems

You Bet Your Life

Employee Advocate – – March 3, 2003

Ruth Shaw, the new Duke Power president, was interviewed on the TV program "Charlotte Tonight" February 27, 2003. She was asked if she thought that nuclear plants were safe from terrorist attacks. She answered “You Bet!”

She then went on to cite improved security. Then she rolled out the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as saviors. She said that she would put the NRC up against any regulatory group.

Does “You Bet” mean “You bet your life on no terrorist attacks” or “You gamble that there are no successful terrorist attacks on a nuclear plant”? That is the actual case. Nuclear terrorism is a real risk. It cannot be spun away.

Without going into unnecessary detail, the improved security cannot guarantee that any terrorist attack will be repelled. Consider that terrorist have successfully penetrated the Pentagon. Also, consider that even if every nuclear plant in the U. S. was ordered to shut down, the plants would still be prime terrorist targets!

Using the NRC for a security blanket also has its limits. The NRC’s credibility has never been lower! They allowed a nuclear plant to operate, ignoring safety concerns that had been reported for over a year. The NRC was accused of putting the profitability of the utility ahead of public safety. One report stated that the NRC doubted their own authority to shut down the plant! When surveyed, NRC employees stated that they doubted the commitment of the NRC to nuclear safety!

This it the group that Ms. Shaw is depending upon to save us? This is the group that she will put up against anyone? Either she is ignorant of the facts, or she is deliberately distorting the facts to make things appear better that they are. This is not a good way to start out.

The nuclear safety matter was not just some trivial administrative error or otherwise benign issue. It involved a hole in the reactor head!

It appears that Ms. Shaw has been well indoctrinated in Duke-speak. No matter what the charge is - deny it to the grave. No matter what the question - always give a rosy prediction. If all executives, old and new, are clones of CEO Rick Priory, what can possibly change?

Sources for the above comments are provided in the links below:

Whistle-Blower Lawsuits

Did the NRC Shut One Eye?

INPO Cites Management Problems

NRC Employees Worried About Safety

A Nuclear Horror Story

NRC Doubted Own Authority

Al-Qaida Ties to North Carolina

Employee Advocate – – March 3, 2003

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the al-Qaida leader captured in Pakistan on Saturday, once attended Chowan College in northeastern North Carolina, according to the Associate Press.

He is attributed to be the al-Qaida's top operations official and the suspected mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mohammed has also been linked to other terrorist attacks, worldwide. He is on the FBI's most-wanted terrorists list, and last year was called "the most significant operational player out there right now."

He had the same price on his head as bin Laden - $25 million.

Hezbollah Ties to North Carolina

Employee Advocate – – March 3, 2003

The Charlotte Observer reports that Mohamad Hammoud, convicted of conspiring to provide material support to Hezbollah, was sentenced to 155 years in prison on Friday. Hezbollah is a Lebanese militia group considered to be a terrorist organization by the United States. The Lebanese man was convicted in Charlotte, North Carolina in June.

His brother, Chawki Hammoud, was sentenced to four years and three months in prison for a racketeering conspiracy conviction.

The investigations began in 1995. In July 2000 18 people were indicted in Charlotte on various charges, including possible links to terrorism. Later, nine suspects were indicted for being members of a Hezbollah cell in Charlotte. Another person was accused of conspiracy.

Are Radioactive Frying Pans Coming?

Public Citizen - – March 1, 2003

Federal Agency Must Consider Opposition of More Than 100 Organizations

(2/28/03) - WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) today made clear its determination to permit forced radiation exposures upon the public. In today's Federal Register, the NRC published a notice of a workshop and a request for comments on the scope of its proposed rulemaking on "controlling the disposition of solid materials." In so doing, the NRC appears to be forging ahead to allow massive quantities of nuclear wastes to be "released," thus allowing them to go into unlicensed landfills, incinerators and even consumer products.

More than 100 organizations in the United States and internationally have stated their opposition to such practices, however, and have signed on to a "Statement Opposing Radioactive 'Recycling' and Deregulation of Nuclear Wastes."

Nuclear waste materials are already being released without any restrictions, on a "case-by-case" basis. A National Academies report from last year, entitled "The Disposition Dilemma: Controlling the Release of Solid Materials from Nuclear Regulatory Commission-Licensed Facilities," stated that wastes from nuclear reactors "are being released on a daily basis." But, disturbingly, the report verified that "[t]he amount of these materials is not known because there is no requirement to document the materials released."

"The NRC's proposed rulemaking is being conducted merely to accommodate the nuclear industry, which would like to make the 'release' of nuclear trash easier, cheaper and more clearly legal than it is currently," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "These materials, which are not labeled or tracked in any way, could end up in any variety of products, from bicycles and toys to cookware and bedsprings. The NRC needs to make the protection of public health and safety its top priority, not saving money for the nuclear industry at the public's expense."

The nuclear industry and government regulators have been pushing for a way to fully deregulate radioactive waste for decades. A previous method, by which certain wastes were designated as "below regulatory concern" was banned by Congress in 1992 in response to pressure from state and local governments and citizen, consumer, and industry groups. According to a National Academies report issued last year, the total cost to dispose of all slightly radioactive solid material — metal and concrete — from U.S. power reactors under the no-release option is estimated at between $4.5 billion and $11.7 billion. The report went on to add that "clearance of all this material could allow the option of recycle or reuse … and would avoid essentially all disposal costs."

The NRC seems to be ignoring recommendations from this report, originally commissioned by the NRC itself. The report stated that a "legacy of distrust" had developed between the NRC and the public, and that "[b]road stakeholder involvement and participation in the USNRC's decision-making process … is critical as the USNRC moves forward." Today's announcement includes no schedule for any public hearings, except one two-day workshop (May 21 and 22), scheduled in the daytime, during the work week in the Washington, D.C., area.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is back again trying to legalize putting nuclear power and weapons waste into our belt buckles, baby toys and frying pans. The public response is still 'NO! We won't take it!' and NRC knows it, so they are avoiding public hearings so the public won't find out," said Diane D'Arrigo, radioactive waste project director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS).

Among the supplementary information accompanying today's announcement, the NRC claims that one of the alternatives being considered for the wastes is that of "no release"—wherein radioactive wastes could only be placed in licensed facilities, not "released" into standard landfills, incinerated, or "recycled." The NRC Commission Voting Record of Oct. 25, 2002, however, indicates that this option is not likely to be selected or fully evaluated. NRC Chairman Richard Meserve advised that in dealing with this issue "it would not be appropriate to mask the Commission's continuing support for the release of solid material …."

"The NRC is fully empowered to completely ban these absurd release and 'recycling' practices," said David Ritter, policy analyst for Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "The fact that they are moving forward with this process only confirms that they think forcing multiple radiation exposures upon an unconsenting public is worthy of consideration. Sadly, they must be told again that it is not."

To read the group statement, please go to

To read today's Federal Register, please go to:

Public comments will be accepted until June 30, 2003. Public Citizen plans to submit comments soon.

Whistle-Blower Lawsuits

Akron Beacon Journal - February 26, 2003

(2/20/03) - The first whistle-blower lawsuit has been filed against FirstEnergy about the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant: A former engineer alleges he was fired for raising safety concerns at the Oak Harbor facility. And similar lawsuits may be waiting in the wings, a nuclear power critic said.

"There are other whistle- blowers out there in touch with other lawyers,"said David Lochbaum, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Washington, D.C.

Port Clinton resident Andrew Siemaszko's suit, filed Tuesday with the federal Department of Labor, said that boric acid damage could have been discovered years earlier had Davis-Besse management agreed to his recommendations.

He said he was fired in September after trying to persuade management to let him clean boric acid deposits from atop the reactor as far back as 2000 and then trying to ensure last summer that four safety- related reactor coolant pumps were inspected and repaired. The 26-page suit also criticizes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for lack of oversight at Davis-Besse.

FirstEnergy said the utility believes Siemaszko's lawsuit has no merit. He and others were terminated with cause for failing to identify conditions that created corrosion on top of the reactor and then providing inaccurate and incomplete information to the NRC, the company said.

"This individual was not a whistle-blower," FirstEnergy spokesman Ralph DiNicola said. FirstEnergy will file a formal response to the lawsuit within a couple of weeks, he said.

Like Lochbaum, Siemaszko's Washington-based lawyer, Billie Pirner Garde, said "there may be" other potential whistle-blowers, but Garde added that she isn't representing anyone else from Davis-Besse. Federal law prohibits retaliation against people who raise safety issues or who have insider knowledge of wrongdoing.

Lochbaum said he put Siemaszko in touch with Garde, who specializes in whistle- blower suits, in October. The suit says Siemaszko has documents to back up his claims.

DiNicola said he is unaware of any other impending suits.

A special NRC panel will also review Siemaszko's complaint in the next several days, agency spokesman Jan Strasma said.

Siemaszko was hired at the plant in 1999; his background includes working at the Arkansas Nuclear One plant. At Davis- Besse, he was the lead system engineer responsible for identifying boric acid corrosion that ate two cavities on top of the reactor, his suit says. That damage was found in March, and the plant has been kept shut down since.

The whistle-blower suit could have important ramifications for FirstEnergy's plan to have Davis-Besse ready to restart by mid-April. The Akron utility needs to prove to regulators that its Davis-Besse work force puts safety first and feels free to question management without fear of retaliation or intimidation. The NRC has said that evaluating the Davis-Besse safety culture will be the most important part of its decision in deciding when the 883-megawatt plant can restart.

Siemaszko's complaint said that by firing him, FirstEnergy's nuclear operating company "has created the impression and belief among other employees that employees who raise concerns, or insist on repairs inconsistent with the views of management, will be removed."

Siemaszko said he was offered a choice on Sept. 18 between resigning or being fired, and that he chose to be fired because resigning would indicate that he was guilty of misconduct.

His complaint says that Davis-Besse management knew as early as 1996 that dried boric acid was on top of the vessel head, and subsequently lied that it all had been cleaned off during a refueling outage in 2000. The suit said that Davis-Besse managers cut short his attempts to completely clean off the boric acid deposits that were caused by leaking reactor coolant.

In addition, plant management refused to conduct tests that he devised that would have determined the location and severity of boric acid leaks, the suit says. If the tests had shown boric acid leaks on top of the reactor vessel, the plant would have had to shut down the reactor, Lochbaum said.

Boric acid leaks have been an issue in the nuclear industry for years. The acid, part of the reactor coolant, can corrode carbon steel. Siemaszko was hired as lead nuclear engineer, whose responsibilities included the reactor cooling system. His complaint says that if FirstEnergy had agreed to his recommendations to modify the vessel head to allow easier access for cleaning and inspections, the boric acid corrosion probably would have been found in 2000 rather than in 2002.

Siemaszko's complaint also says that videos and photographs Davis-Besse made in 1998 clearly show boric acid deposits and rust-colored discharges on top of the reactor.

"In other words, the information available in 2000 was also available in 1998," the lawsuit says. "The NRC did not address the concerns either in 1998 or in 2000."

The NRC either knew or should have known about the boric acid in 1998, the suit said, and should have seen additional reports and pictures of boric acid corrosion in 2000. The suit said videotapes taken of the vessel head were given to Davis-Besse management and to the NRC. Also, the suit said Siemaszko made a one-minute presentation to NRC staff in November 2001 where he mentioned the video tapes and still photos of the vessel head.

He said the NRC's regional office and resident inspectors "provided no real oversight at Davis-Besse. Either they were not actively involved in reviewing the issues, or they did not understand what they were seeing," the lawsuit says.

He also said Davis-Besse had no system in place to ensure that boric acid was not damaging the reactor, despite an NRC mandate from 12 years earlier that all plants develop boric acid programs.

U.S. Runs Into MOX Snags in France, Belgium

Greenville News – by Tim Smith - February 26, 2003

(2/24/03) - The French won't let differences over a possible war with Iraq keep the United States from using a French facility to make the first U.S. batches of nuclear fuel from military plutonium, according to the French Embassy.

However, the French government has not decided whether it will allow the plant to be used to make mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, according to the embassy.

The test batches are a key step in the $4 billion program to manufacture MOX at the Savannah River Site. The program, part of an American-Russian weapons agreement, would convert 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel to be used at two Charlotte-area nuclear plants.

The U.S. Department of Energy is considering French and Belgium facilities because they already make MOX. And making the first batches in Europe would allow the testing and safety review of the fuel to take place before the SRS facilities are completed, saving years in the process.

But government and nonproliferation group officials say significant hurdles have surfaced in Europe in the last year, and opposition to the U.S. stance on Iraq from Belgium and France has not helped the situation.

"Some politicians could certainly use the disagreements over Iraq to point out the U.S. is trying to bulldoze this whole plutonium program through without international support," said Tom Clements, an official with Greenpeace International.

Ed Lyman, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based nonproliferation group, said the French would not necessarily be swayed in their nuclear decisions by their differences with the United States over Iraq.

"However, if they didn't want to do it, it certainly wouldn't help the U.S. press its case," he said.

According to the French Embassy in Washington, making MOX at the French facility of Cadarache is still a possibility and will not be affected by French opposition to war in Iraq.

Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of DOE supervising the MOX project, said the government is continuing to examine the European option. He said the consortium, which will build and run the MOX plant at SRS, is getting cost and schedule information from Belgian and French companies but wouldn't release further details.

Last summer, a member of the Belgium parliament told The Greenville News the U.S. government had asked Belgium to allow the first batches of MOX, called lead test assemblies, to be made there. Environmentalists in the government, called Greens, opposed the MOX plans, and a decision has been postponed.

Eloi Glorieux, a member of the Flemish government in the Belgium parliament, told The News the issue remains controversial and he does not believe it will be approved, though the nation's prime minister recently visited Washington.

"I think the issue is closed," he said.

That would leave France. Cogema, one of the companies involved in the consortium to make MOX at SRS, is a French firm.

But the MOX plant mentioned as a possible manufacturing site, Cadarache, is scheduled to be closed. Officials have cited safety concerns with the plant's ability to withstand earthquake damage. And the facility, like all other European MOX plants, has never made the fuel using military plutonium.

"I think it would be imprudent for the Americans to insist on making MOX in a plant that has been declared unsafe seismically by the French," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, an American scientific group that studies MOX issues. "If there is a problem, it would be seen as the Americans muscling the French on one more issue. And the French don't seem to be in the mood to be muscled anyway."

Makhijani said many of the problems the United States has encountered in gaining European cooperation stem from the fact that none of the plants are licensed to handle weapons-grade plutonium, which makes up the core of nuclear bombs. European MOX plants use spent commercial nuclear fuel rods.

"There are just an immense number of fine-print issues, which have simply been brushed under the carpet," Makhijani said. "I really think this is one of those sad cases where the goals of the program were good for plutonium disposition, but it's gotten mired down because of poor program design and fairly incoherent implementation."

Lyman said however the government decides to make its first batches of MOX, the European problems have added time to the process.

"That may mean there will be more pressure on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not to look too hard or make too many demands for licensing this fuel," he said, "and I think that would be a mistake. There are a whole lot of issues about the performance of this fuel and its safety, which need to be resolved."

Officials plan to produce the first MOX at SRS by 2009. The government can be forced to pay financial penalties to South Carolina of up to $100 million a year if the site does not produce a ton of MOX by 2011.

MOX critics have charged that using European nations to produce the first batches of mixed-oxide fuel involves unnecessary risk because the plutonium would have to travel so far from the United States.

Recently, a group of Greenpeace demonstrators chained themselves to a truck carrying plutonium in France to show how routinely that nation transports the dangerous material. Every week trucks carrying the equivalent of 20 atom bombs leave the La Hague plant in France headed for the Marcoule or Cadarache MOX plants in the Rhone valley, according to Greenpeace.

"The thought of highly visible sea and land shipments of U.S. weapons plutonium at this time likely gives chills to both the security and PR people in the French and Belgian governments," Greenpeace's Clements said.

Nuclear Terrorism Not Considered

Did the NRC Shut One Eye?

Dow Jones – February 18, 2003

(2/6/03) - CHICAGO - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had evidence of severe corrosion damage at FirstEnergy Corp.'s (FE) Davis-Besse nuclear power plant a year and a half before the agency even considered ordering the plant off line, according to a prominent agency critic.

A plant report with a color photograph that indicated corrosion was allegedly given to an NRC inspector by plant workers in April 2000, according to David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists environmental group.

But the NRC failed to respond to the FirstEnergy report in 2000, Lochbaum said. And by late 2001, when the agency was finally considering a forced shutdown amid concerns the reactor was susceptible to cracks, it appears key decisionmakers still didn't have the evidence, he said.

"I think it's important to find out what happened," said Lochbaum, who has more than 17 years experience in the industry. "That picture showed something wasn't right."

The NRC has said that it doesn't think it had this photograph until mid-2002, when a full investigation into the damage at Davis-Besse was under way. But Lochbaum said unnamed sources at Davis-Besse have confirmed to him that the report was handed in April 2000 to an inspector from the NRC's Region III office, which oversees the troubled plant.

Shutdown Delayed

In mid-2001, the NRC wanted Davis-Besse and similar plants to shut by year-end to check for cracks on equipment running through the reactor head - cracks it was later learned precipitated the damage at Davis-Besse. NRC staff were concerned about problems at Davis-Besse, drafted an order to force the plant off line, but ultimately allowed it to operate until mid-February 2002 at FirstEnergy's request.

Shortly after the northern Ohio plant was finally taken down, workers discovered unprecedented damage to the plant's reactor lid. Corrosion caused by leaking boric acid from the reactor's cooling system nearly ate through the lid and plunged the plant into an expensive outage that's now a year long and counting.

Lochbaum obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request a so-called "condition report" written by a Davis-Besse worker in April 2000 that documents evidence of boric acid leakage and indicated corrosive conditions. The report contained seven color pictures, including one now infamous snapshot that shows rusty boric acid deposits around the rim of the reactor lid.

Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, confirmed that the report was written, but wouldn't comment directly on whether it was given to the NRC.

NRC Region III spokesman Jan Strasma said he has no knowledge of an inspector receiving the report in April 2000. He pointed out that plant operators write thousands of such reports, and that the NRC, which monitors a workplace of hundreds with two inspectors, doesn't review them all.

Following The Photo

George Mulley, a senior level assistant of investigative operations in the NRC's Office of the Inspector General, confirmed that his department is now reviewing whether the agency had the condition report. The probe, launched this week at the request of U.S. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, should take about six weeks, he said.

"We're going to follow the document where it leads us," Mulley said.

The Inspector General's office, an independent investigative department within the NRC, recently released a report criticizing the agency for its decision to let Davis-Besse run past the Dec. 31, 2001, deadline.

Whether or not the NRC saw the photograph, there was enough evidence and suspicion of problems at Davis-Besse to prompt the agency to draft a strongly worded order that would have shut the reactor down by the deadline. But it was never issued. The Inspector General's report suggested that the NRC bowed to the consideration that an earlier shutdown would have been more costly for FirstEnergy.

NRC Chairman Richard A. Meserve rejected that suggestion, along with virtually all others in the report, in a public letter that called the report's release a "significant disservice" to the agency. In a meeting on Davis-Besse earlier this week, other commissioners defended the agency's handling of the matter. "The processes that surrounded that (decision) were well justified," Commissioner Nils J. Diaz said.

Missed Signs

According to Lochbaum, there's little to suggest the agency has been untruthful about the pictures or that key officials had them in hand when they ruled against the Davis-Besse shutdown order.

That raises questions, though, about why an NRC inspector didn't respond to the photos in April 2000 and why the information never worked its way up the chain of command, he said. One key problem, Lochbaum said, is that people in the Region III office had little say when the agency was debating the forced shutdown.

"The region has the most knowledge about Davis-Besse," he said. "They deserved a seat at the table." Another major problem is what Lochbaum called "tunnel vision" on the part of the regulator and plant owner. Before the corrosion was well-known, many in the industry believed the reactor's high temperature would keep away the moisture boron needs to become corrosive. Pictures that actually showed rivers of corroded material flowing from atop the reactor vessel were passed off as something more benign. "That was conventional wisdom, and it was a mistake," FirstEnergy spokesman Wilkins said.

Ultimately, Lochbaum said, the NRC needs to figure out how its review process for Davis-Besse broke down. The agency has issued a "lessons learned" report that suggests many changes, but did little to address the apparent analytical and communications errors highlighted by the corrosion pictures, he said.

"Understanding that decisionmaking process is important," Lochbaum said. "Until you address what shortfalls are in these areas, the problems will not get fixed."

NRC Safety Feature Flaw Assessment

Dow Jones – February 17, 2003

(2/12/03) - CHICAGO -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is preparing to ask U.S. nuclear power plant owners for assessments of a potentially widespread safety feature flaw that has been found at FirstEnergy Corp.'s troubled Davis-Besse plant, agency officials said Wednesday.

The NRC wants information on an emergency cooling system that has used to pump water back into a reactor if there is a coolant leak, agency spokesman Jan Strasma said. FirstEnergy has been repairing the system at Davis-Besse, located near Toledo, Ohio, after determining that a design flaw could cause problems. FirstEnergy's acknowledgment of a potential flaw highlighted a problem that the NRC already had under review.

"This issue is much broader than Davis-Besse, and the NRC is looking at what needs to be done by other plants," Strasma said. "Even without Davis-Besse, our review of the issue was leading towards some sort of directive to the industry to evaluate this."

At issue is a filtering screen that leads to a sump system at the bottom of reactors' containment buildings - the reinforced concrete structures that house the reactor vessel. If a breached reactor or burst pipe allows leaking cooling water to flow into the containment building, the containment sump recirculates the water back into the reactor to keep it from overheating.

Industry research has shown that debris such as pipe insulation or paint chips could clog the screen and disrupt the system, potentially leading to a worst-case-scenario of melting fuel, Strasma said. Although very unlikely, a jet of steam from a system leak could potentially dislodge enough material to cause a clog. Fixes Being Made At Davis-Besse

At Davis-Besse, severe corrosion discovered last March nearly ate through the reactor's heavy carbon steel lid, stopping only at a thin sheet of stainless steel cladding. Had the pressurized reactor been breached, coolant would have gushed into the containment building.

FirstEnergy noted the potential containment sump problem in a December memorandum to the NRC, when it was already getting ready to make dramatic changes to the system. By the time the plant restarts within the next few months, pending NRC permission, the containment building will have a much larger sump screen at a cost of $2.3 million, company spokesman Richard Wilkins said.

"What we decided was it could be a problem," he said. "Given the situation that we were in, given the scrutiny that we were under, given the fact that we would probably have to deal with this and given the fact that we were in an extended outage, we decided to deal with this."

The NRC is preparing to seek public comment on the issue before a directive is sent to other utilities later this year asking that they evaluate their plants. The agency will start taking public comment next month, spokesman Scott Burnell said.

The NRC wouldn't say precisely what the directive would ask, but Jon Hopkins, a senior project manager at the agency, said it is likely to request information from owners of the nation's 69 pressurized water reactors, which include Davis-Besse. Duke Energy Corp., Dominion Resources Inc. and Entergy Corp. are among the large U.S. nuclear plant operators with multiple pressurized water units in their fleets.

Some Plants Solved Problem

The containment sump issue was already addressed several years ago at the 34 boiling water reactors in the U.S. fleet, including FirstEnergy's Perry nuclear plant, as different designs at those plants made modifications a priority, Hopkins said.

According to Alex Marion, director of engineering at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, the NRC's draft letter is expected to endorse steps the industry is already taking to address the sump system design flaw.

Utilities are now assessing plant systems to determine whether or not there is a potential for debris to be dislodged by a system leak and whether or not that debris could cause a clog, Marion said. It is likely that a small number of plants will need the same work that is now under way at Davis-Besse, he said.

The NEI expects to put together guidelines for utilities on the issue by September, he said.

Dave Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group, said FirstEnergy's experience at Davis-Besse is likely to encourage utilities to voluntarily fix their containment sump systems. The work done at Davis-Besse could be a model for plants with similar designs, he said.

It would take a string of unlikely events to cause failure of the cooling systems. But it is alarming to consider a scenario where Davis-Besse needed the system and it didn't work, Lochbaum said. "That was the safety net everybody was pointing to," he said. "That revelation shows that the safety net was there, but wasn't tied off the ground."

Will Spent-Fuel Close Plant?

Dow Jones – February 17, 2003

(2/12/03) - NEW YORK -- Legislative committee hearings are under way in Minnesota as state lawmakers begin to debate the state's energy future and whether or not Xcel Energy's nuclear power plants will be a part of it.

With the start of hearings last week, the House Regulated Industries Committee has opened a Pandora's box of difficult issues linked to a statute that would see Xcel's 1,100-megawatt Prairie Island plant shut before its licenses expire.

According to a 1994 law, Minnesota's nuclear power plants must shut once they reach a statutory limit on spent fuel storage. Due to delays in the opening of a federal waste repository, spent fuel stored in dry casks is backing up at many of the nation's nuclear power plant, but nowhere is the problem more acute that at Prairie Island near Red Wing, Minn. The Minneapolis-based company says its casks are full and a new law must be drafted or the plant will be forced to shut in 2007, when its spent-fuel pool fills up.

Licenses for Prairie Island's twin reactors are set to expire in 2013 and 2014. Xcel's 600-MW Monticello plant, located about 30 miles from Minneapolis, will reach storage capacity in 2010, when its license expires.

Complicating matters is an agreement that underpins the legislation, giving the tribal Prairie Island Indian Community, whose land abuts Xcel's, legal standing to enforce the waste policy.

Tribal officials believe that means nothing can be done to expand waste storage beyond the current 17-cask limit unless the tribe agrees.

With a standoff brewing, all parties are keen to educate the legislature before it begins drafting a new law. Only about one-third of Minnesota's representatives were around in 1994 when the first agreement was hammered out in a bitter fight. Lawmakers have already heard from a bewildering array of organizations, from studiously neutral regulators to interest groups including environmentalists, union representatives, business groups and chambers of commerce.

Xcel briefed legislators last week on the cost and consequences of shutting the plants.

"We're trying to keep the lights on and we think continued nuclear plant operations is the best answer," said Xcel spokeswoman Laura McCarten.

In 2001, Prairie Island provided 24% of the electricity generated by Xcel in Minnesota. Shutting the plant will require the company to buy electricity elsewhere, driving up the price customers pay, the company said.

Xcel already buys nearly 30% of the power that it gets every year.

The company announced on Tuesday that it is negotiating to build two new fossil plants should Prairie Island be shut.

If the company gets the nod to keep its nuclear plants on line, McCarten said, it will proceed with a $100 million refurbishment of the Prairie Island plant.

But the Prairie Island tribe says a deal is a deal.

In 1994, then-Northern States Power, which became Xcel after a 2000 merger with Denver-based New Century Energies, said it wouldn't come back to the state legislature to ask for more storage space. "We view it as a matter of corporate and governmental responsibility." said John Knapp, the tribe's attorney. "When companies make these promises, they should be held to them."

The U.S. Department of Energy was to have relieved utilities of their nuclear waste by now by shipping it to a $58 billion permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. But political and legal battles have set the timetable for the opening back to 2010 at the earliest.

Xcel is invested in a separate initiative that would ship the waste to Utah. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to grant a license for a temporary facility to be located on Goshute tribal land in Skull Valley.

Knapp said the only way around what could be another political dustup would be to amend the agreement struck between the energy company, the state government and the tribe, he said.

"We have had talks, and this is an opportunity for Xcel to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the tribe's needs," he said.

He cited long-standing requests for a health study to be done, for high-voltage transmission lines to be moved away from tribal housing and for a second route off the Island to be built to facilitate evacuation in case of a nuclear emergency. The only route is frequently blocked by train traffic, he said.

Environmental groups warn that, given past inaction, bargaining with the utility is a gamble, and the best solution is to uphold the law.

"We support the right of the community to exercise the power vested in it by the 1994 agreement," said George Crocker, executive director of the North American Water Office. "That said, their interests don't necessarily coincide with our perception of what the public interest is. The public interest is to phase nuclear power out as quickly as possible."

The tribal council is expected to testify before the state committee on Feb. 19.

A new bill could be drafted before the end of the month and introduced in the House by early March.

No Time for a Cheap NRC

Associated Press – February 7, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) - A federal agency that agreed last month to overhaul nuclear power plant inspections because of acid damage at an Ohio plant is reconsidering its budget proposal to spend less on inspections and more on homeland security, a department spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's proposed budget for 2004, released this week, cuts spending and staff for plant licensing, inspection and incident-response teams.

Last March, leaks were discovered at the Davis-Besse plant east of Toledo that allowed boric acid to eat nearly through the 6-inch-thick steel cap that covers the reactor vessel.

NRC spokeswoman Elizabeth Hayden said the agency's budget was drafted last fall before an internal review found that NRC employees failed to perform inspections that could have detected the damage much earlier.

``We are going to be re-examining these areas,'' Hayden said. ``We'll make any adjustments for real-world things that have happened since we put the budget together.''

While the agency can not alter its budget proposal, Congress can make changes during the appropriation process.

In response to criticism about Davis-Besse, the NRC agreed last month to a series of changes such as conducting more thorough inspections, demanding better assurances from plant operators that problems get fixed and creating a mechanism for faster intervention when irregularities are spotted.

The leaks at Davis-Besse were found last February while the plant was shut down for maintenance. The plant has remained closed.

The NRC budget proposal is the first step in what normally involves months of negotiation with Congress. Along with other parts of President Bush's 2004 budget, NRC's funding must be approved by the House and the Senate.

Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee that oversees nuclear safety, wants to hear more details from the NRC on its budget changes at a hearing he scheduled for next week, spokesman Scott Milburn said.

Overall, the NRC budget would increase by 7 percent, from $585 million to $626 million, and the number of NRC workers would increase by 58.

The budget's focus has been shifted from reactor licensing and inspections to ensure the nation's nuclear power plants aren't vulnerable to terrorist attacks, according to the 271-page budget proposal.

The agency proposes cutting its main reactor licensing program from $57.9 million to $54.1 million, which means 31 fewer employees. The inspection division's budget would go from $73.6 million to $73.2 million, a reduction of six workers.

The reactor incident response team would be cut by three employees as its budget falls from $7.5 million to $6.3 million. One employee would be lost from the reactor technical training division, despite a budget increase from $12.5 million to $12.6 million.

The NRC plans to conduct ``more effective and efficient programs'' to cover the budget cuts, according to the proposal.

Several lawmakers are awaiting a General Accounting Office review of the agency's handling of the Davis-Besse situation. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has asked the NRC to revoke the license of FirstEnergy Corp., which operates the plant.

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