Nuke Plants Aging Disgracefully 

By Kendra Mayfield  |   Also by this reporter Page 1 of 2

02:00 AM Feb. 06, 2003 PT

Last February, Ohio's Davis-Besse nuclear power plant shut down after workers discovered that boric acid had eaten away at 70 pounds of steel, leaving a 6-by-5-inch hole in its reactor head. Only a thin, 3/8-inch strip of stainless steel lining protected the reactor from rupturing and causing what could have been the most devastating nuclear accident since Three Mile Island.

"We could have had the worst nuclear catastrophe this nation had ever experienced," said Amy Ryder, who leads the campaign to permanently close the plant for environmental advocacy group Ohio Citizen Action.

Currently, there are 103 commercial nuclear power plants in the United States, which account for more than 20 percent of the nation's total electricity energy output. Davis-Besse is among a growing number of aging plants plagued by corrosion and other defects caused by decades of intense heat and pressure inside the reactor.

Recently, workers found coolant leaks at the Sequoyah 2 plant in Tennessee and the Comanche Peak 1 plant in Texas. Both plants had leaked boric acid, which is an additive in reactor coolant that is highly corrosive to carbon steel.

"There's been a lengthy list of these near-misses," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's a growing problem. For an aging fleet of nuclear reactors, it's not unexpected."

While there hasn't been a major nuclear accident in the United States in 20 years, the consequences of such an event could be devastating. If safety systems fail, aging reactors could leak radiation, which may contaminate the water supply and cause life-threatening diseases and infections.

The 1986 meltdown of Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear reactor spewed radiation across Europe. Since the accident, thousands of people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have died from radiation-related illnesses. Almost 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer have resulted from the reactor explosion, according to BBC News.

"If there's an accident, the damage is irreversible," said Ryder of Ohio Citizen Action. "I don't think the technology is worth the risk."

Critics say the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates safety at commercial nuclear power plants, should have caught the Davis-Besse problem sooner.

In fall 2001, the NRC identified 12 nuclear power plants as being highly susceptible to corrosion or cracking. The commission shut down all of these plants for inspection, except Davis-Besse.

Davis-Besse started leaking boric acid in 1996. Between 1998 and 2000, the leakage began causing problems for other equipment. In 1999, FirstEnergy, the corporation that operates Davis-Besse, found traces of rust particles in the filters of radiation monitors. These filters, which sample the air inside the reactor's containment structure, are normally replaced every two to three months. When the leakage began, the filters had to be replaced every day.

"That should have been a sign that something was not right here," Lochbaum said.

FirstEnergy ignored photographic evidence documenting rust seeping from the reactor head as early as April 2000, Ryder said.

In August, FirstEnergy admitted to NRC investigators that it placed production before public safety by deferring inspections and corrective action programs. FirstEnergy is spending more than $400 million on repairs.

By allowing safety margins to erode, FirstEnergy and the NRC have lost a great deal of the public's trust, Lochbaum said.

"Those are huge holes cut in the safety net," he said.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) recently filed a 29-page petition asking the NRC to revoke FirstEnergy's operating license. Kucinich says that the utility violated NRC rules by ignoring NRC warnings, ignoring its own monitoring systems and hiding information from the regulatory agency.

Ohio Citizen Action wants to see the reactor shut down for good, Ryder said. The group is recommending that FirstEnergy convert the plant to a different source of fuel, such as gas or coal, to produce electricity.

"Given that this technology is an unforgiving technology, we can't take chances," Ryder said. "Once these things show this type of aging, it's time for the utilities to retire them. If a reactor leaks, it's time to shut it down."

But others say old equipment shouldn't be blamed for causing the problems at Davis-Besse.

Story continued on Page 2 »

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