NRC Chairman Meserve (photo courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sharply criticized a report by the NRC's Inspector General that said NRC staffers permitted the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio to delay inspections largely because of concerns about the financial impact a shutdown would have on the plant's operator.

The IG's report, released Dec. 30, said that NRC staffers permitted the plant operator, FirstENergy Nuclear Operating Co., to delay inspections of Davis-Besse reactor vessel nozzles for about six weeks, in large part because of the staffers' concerns of the financial effects on FirstEnergy.

In in a response to the IG posted on NRC's web page on Jan. 10, commission Chairman Richard A. Meserve blasted the report as "seriously inaccurate and misleading." NRC said Meserve was speaking for the five-member commission. He conceded that one of the IG's findings was partly correct--that staffers should have provide documentation of their decision at an early time. But Meserve said four other IG findings were "unjustified, unfair and misleading."

Meserve said that the IG was inaccurate in its finding that concern about a shutdown's financial effects played a large role in NRC staff decision. He said the NRC's relevant staff unanimously determined that delaying the inspections posed no major safety concerns, a point noted in the IG's report. Meserve said, "Assuring the public health and safety is the highest priority of the NRC, and we believe that the staff's action was consistent with this requirement."

George Mulley, senior level assistant for investigative operations in the IG's office, says, "We stand by the report. We believe the report is completely accurate and is supported by the facts that we developed during our investigation."

But Mulley adds, "I think, though, that there's a lot of things attributed to our report that we didn't conclude." He adds, "We don't say that [NRC staff] gave too much weidht to the financial aspects. We don't say that....We didn't say that the staff sacrificed public health and safety in reaching that decision" about the inspections.

Meserve did say that NRC "has itself been highly self-critical in connection with the programmatic deficiencies in connection with the head-corrosion event." It has done "an extensive lessons-learned report" on Davis-Besse, Meserve added.

The staff allowed Davis-Besse to keep operating past Dec. 31, 2001, and delay nozzle inspections until Feb. 16, 2002. Those inspections found five of the 69 nozzles had axial or circumferential cracks, the IG said. The plant has been shut since that time.