Spent fuel storage casks proposed by Pacific Gas & Electric for use at its Diablo Canyon and Humboldt Bay nuclear power plants fail Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, according to a former quality control engineer for Exelon. PG&E stands behind its chosen storage cask manufacturer.\t PG&E selected Holtec to manufacture its proposed spent fuel casks in California and Holtec is the manufacturer chosen by Midwestern utility Exelon for its radioactive waste casks. Thus, allegations by the former Exelon employee could affect the perception, if not the enforcement, of Holtec's integrity. The casks "are nothing but garbage cans" if they are not made in accordance with government specs, said whistleblower Oscar Shirani. Shirani discovered alleged flaws in the casks used at Exelon's Dresden plant in Illinois during a quality control inspection. He subsequently notified the NRC of potential radioactive hazards from the substandard containers. The former quality control engineer claims the NRC has refused to investigate or intervene to stop the manufacturing deficiencies. "I thought the NRC was a big dog and a force," Shirani said. Without the necessary oversight, he said, the safety of nuclear plants "is suspect." If the casks are as shoddy as Shirani fears, would they leak radioactivity and endanger public health? He could only guess at the impact on millions of people. Shirani noted he tried to put a "stop work" order on the casks' fabrication, but to no avail. Anti-nuclear activists have followed up on his claims, filing Freedom of Information Act requests to find out what the government did about these claims. Even after reading the fine print, activists, in addition to Shirani, could not quantify the potential danger. "No one?not Shirani, the public, the NRC or cask makers?should have to guess about the consequences of the manufacturing flaws," said David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer. "The regulations require a certain level of performance and his findings were below that minimum level. It may not be that the cask will fail when challenged, but they are unnecessarily and illegally closer to the failure point," he added. Shirani audited Holtec and its suppliers for the Nuclear Users Procurement Issues Committee, identifying what he calls "major design and fabrication issues" against Holtec in 1999 and 2000. He filed his finding with the NRC in November 2000 but the agency closed the preliminary investigation a year later. Welds on the casks were performed by "unqualified welders" and materials control was inadequate for the casks, resulting in brittle and weak material, Shirani reported to Exelon in mid-2000. Shirani maintains Holtec failed to report holes in the neutron shielding material. In addition, Exelon "falsified" quality assurance documents and "misled" the NRC in last year's investigation of the problem. He found "hundreds of non-conformance items" during his inspections. Overall, Shirani claims that the casks being manufactured to hold nuclear waste are not what the federal government approved in conceptual design. The NRC as a whole has not picked up Shirani's claims, but he does have at least one supporter within the agency?Ross Landsman, NRC Region III inspector. "I called my people in Washington and tried to get them to do something, but they didn't do anything," said Landsman. "Every time I find some stuff wrong with any of the Holtec stuff, my brilliant cohorts in Washington say, 'Give them an exemption'," he stated sarcastically. "Holtec, as far as I'm concerned, has a non-effective QA (quality assurance) program." At the NRC, Landsman is the governmental enforcer of the utility quality assurance employees. He reviews technical reports and makes calls on whether there are potential problems with spent fuel storage devices. Landsman added that the issues raised by Shirani on the casks for the Dresden plant have not been resolved despite an August 2000 audit stating the problems had been fixed. California Energy Circuit requested NRC documents on the Holtec casks through the Freedom of Information Act, but the NRC has not fully complied. In spite of the controversy, PG&E continues to defend its choice of Holtec as manufacturer of its spent fuel casks. "We understand that any issues raised have been resolved and that subsequent audits last year revealed no additional findings relative to Holtec's dry storage systems," was the terse response from Jeff Lewis, PG&E spokesperson. "We have every confidence that Holtec [and its manufacturer] will meet or exceed all applicable regulatory requirements for Diablo Canyon's and Humboldt's used fuel storage projects. We are committed to protecting the health and safety of the public, as is Holtec and the NRC," Lewis added. The NRC's inspector general did not return calls for this story but there have been media reports that the office is in the process of investigating Shirani's claims. That would be news to Holtec. "The NRC has not contacted us," responded Brian Gutherman, Holtec manager of licensing. "The NRC did approve the design as a snapshot in time. We're allowed to make certain changes below the safety threshold." Gutherman added Holtec "is absolutely not concerned" about cask safety and potential leakage, and that "nowhere has anyone suggested such a thing." As for Shirani, Gutherman said, "He's just making things up." Holtec sent a letter to its stakeholders in late June. "We are confident that all of our dry spent fuel storage and transportation cask products and services are provided in a manner that meets or exceeds all applicable regulatory requirements," the letter stated. In a public statement in July, Holtec added, "Had we known of [Shirani's] concerns we would have most definitely helped him sort out the facts under our concerns resolution process. . .The allegations are being used as a springboard by the anti-nuclear groups to attack both the Private Fuel Storage and the Yucca Mountain projects." The company added that Shirani's allegations are an "insult." Holtec casks have also been chosen by Southern California Edison, among other backers of Private Fuel Storage, the proposed radioactive waste-storage site in Utah. If the casks are found to be fabricated below specifications, the NRC could ignore that fact because there are no set policies on such matters. "They could be accepted as-is or get approval of the [changed] design. There could also be an exemption," said NRC spokesperson John Monninger. He added that there is, however, a possibility the government would not allow the casks to be used. What course of action will be taken, and whether it will affect PG&E's plans, remains unclear.