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 January 2002.
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 J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) said the report shows that "FirstEnergy and the NRC worked together to put profits above public safety. It's unacceptable."
NRC Chairman Richard Meserve defended the agency's actions, saying officials made the right decisions based on the information available at the time.
"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 research center in Washington.