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Wednesday, 
November 19, 2003

 



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Regional News | Article published Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Report: Besse shutdown dodged disaster

By TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER


Northern Ohio could have experienced Americaís worst nuclear accident during the Aug. 14 blackout if Davis-Besse had gone back into service last year with its severely corroded reactor head, a report issued yesterday by a nationally known watchdog group claims.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Mass., said it didnít conjure up a nightmarish scenario just for the sake of scaring people.

Its goal is to push the Nuclear Regulatory Commission into being as aggressive toward fixing long-standing design flaws at 68 other nuclear plants as it has been at Davis-Besse, David Lochbaum, the groupís nuclear safety engineer, said.

"These reactors are one broken pipe away from turning this narrative into a tragic prophecy," he wrote. "Congress must ensure this clear and present danger is removed before our collective luck runs out."

Davis-Besse was taken offline for refueling Feb. 16, 2002. Three weeks later, a football-shaped cavity was found in its reactor head. Tests show the steel liner beneath the head was starting to crack.

Recent laboratory tests at the U.S. Department of Energyís Oak Ridge National Laboratory suggest the reactor head could have been closer to blowing open than previously thought.

The sudden loss of offsite power at several nuclear plants during the August blackout could have been catastrophic for northern Ohio if the problem with Davis-Besseís reactor head hadnít been caught.

Thatís because the weakened head would have made the plant far more susceptible to a loss-of-coolant accident, Mr. Lochbaum said.

His theory maintains that the power loss would have resulted in a sudden upward pressure spike, which would have popped open the head and allowed radioactive steam to form in Davis-Besseís containment structure. If the sump and the reactor pumps had clogged, as expected, a meltdown would have been inevitable, he wrote.

The region would have had two to five hours to evacuate, but that would have been complicated by inoperable warning sirens because of the power outage. "Hundreds, perhaps thousands" would have died of radiation-induced illnesses in a few years, the report claims.

Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said he believes Mr. Lochbaumís scenario is flawed because Davis-Besse has emergency diesel generators that can temporarily supply backup power to plant operations when the nuclear station loses offsite power. That likely would have mitigated the effect on reactor pressure, he said.

He also said the sequence of events leading to a two-to-five-hour window of time to evacuate would not be realistic.

Davis-Besse is one of 69 U.S. nuclear plants - two-thirds of the nationís 103 nuclear plants - that have pressurized water reactors. The other 34 are built differently.

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse




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