OAK HARBOR, Ohio - KRT NEWSFEATURES
(KRT) - For most of its 170 years, this little town on the
Portage River lived off the local labors of farming and, later,
manufacturing. When the nuclear power plant was built a few miles
from here in 1978, Oak Harbor, population 2,600, struck the mother
lode of prosperity.
The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station bankrolled a new high
school and an Olympic-size swimming pool and provided 1,000 jobs.
Today it is the heartbeat of Oak Harbor and the biggest employer in
tourism-oriented Ottawa County on Lake Erie's shoreline.
Whether it will be for much longer is a matter of growing
The nuclear plant, plagued by operational troubles for much of
its 24 years, was shut down in February for a routine inspection
when a large, acid-created hole that had gone undetected for four
years was discovered in the nuclear reactor lid.
The owner of Davis-Besse, Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., hoped to
restart the reactor in December, but new problems and unresolved
questions about the plant's safety have delayed that at least until
late winter. Anxiety over the future of the plant increased this
month when FirstEnergy Chief Executive Peter Burg, pointing to the
$400 million the company has already spent to repair the facility,
raised the prospect of closing it permanently.
Davis-Besse has become the national focal point of the nuclear
power safety debate, with its problems generating questions about
the safety of many of the nation's older nuclear plants. FirstEnergy
and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government's chief
regulator of the industry, have come under harsh criticism for
overlooking the flaw for years.
Some members of Congress, including Rep. Marcy Kaptur, whose
district includes the plant, have called for an independent
investigation of the Davis-Besse matter. The NRC, which has the
final say on if and when Davis-Besse can reopen, is conducting a
criminal investigation to determine whether the company deliberately
withheld information about the plant's flaws.
Unexpectedly, the NRC's chairman, Richard Meserve, announced
earlier this month that he would resign, more than a year before his
term is to expire. Meserve had come under fire for the agency's
handling of Davis-Besse.
When Burg told financial analysts in New York that he would not
allow Davis-Besse "to become a black hole for FirstEnergy," the
remark sent a shudder through Oak Harbor because most people here
have a relative or a close friend who works at the plant, which has
retained its staff to make repairs.
"When he said that, I kind of went ballistic. It'll kill the
economy," said Bob Cook, a clerk at the downtown hardware store. "I
can't believe they'll take it and say, `We're done.'"
People in this area are accustomed to problems at Davis-Besse,
but they remained confident that the company would make things
right. Pictures of the erosion damage at the reactor, though, and
disclosures that it went on for so long have shaken some of that
Pam Winters, a deputy registrar for the Ohio Bureau of Motor
Vehicles in Oak Harbor, said she worries that people will "pass the
buck" about problems at the plant. Winters lives about two miles
from the plant and said the discovery of the hole in the reactor lid
has shaken confidence in the plant's safety.
Asked if she believes Davis-Besse can be safe, Winters said, "I
While FirstEnergy officials say they remain optimistic about
fixing the plant, the uncertainty over what the NRC, Congress and
FirstEnergy will do is unsettling for people like Darrell Opfer, a
former high school teacher, state representative and now chief
economic development director for Ottawa County.
"The reactor situation has been disquieting. I'm most concerned
that after the safety concerns are addressed that the politics of
the anti- versus pro-nuclear power community would do something to
prevent the restart," Opfer said.
Jere Witt, the Ottawa County administrator, said closing
Davis-Besse "would be a major blow to us."
"I think there were mistakes made … but I do not think they were
intentional and I do not think there was an effort to cover it up,"
The hole that inspectors discovered in early March was caused by
a build-up of boric acid that had eaten through nearly 70 pounds of
carbon steel protecting the reactor. The brick-size hole had grown
over the years, with the erosion reaching within one-eighth of an
inch of the reactor. Nuclear industry experts say adequate
safeguards were in place to contain the damage if the acid had
reached the reactor, but the broader and more troublesome issue is
why the erosion escaped detection by the company and the NRC for so
"I'm not comfortable with the NRC's explanations," said Kaptur, a
Democrat first elected in 1982. "The burden of proof is on the NRC
and the company and they have not passed the threshold of
Ohio Citizen Action, a public interest group, wants the plant to
be closed permanently. "I think FirstEnergy has lost its privilege
to run the plant. What they're doing now is too little, too late,"
said Amy Ryder, the group's Cleveland area director.
In a 100-page report, the NRC said part of the blame rests with
the agency itself, which had too few inspectors and missed several
opportunities to find the problem. In a recent speech, Meserve said
Davis-Besse was a "direct result of a degraded safety culture" at
FirstEnergy. He also said the NRC "must acknowledge its own
shortcomings in connection with the event."
Since the release of the report, inspectors have found rust on
the bottom of the nuclear reactor. The extent and cause of that
damage will be determined through tests next month, the NRC and
"Every time you turn around now there's something new they
discover," said Sandy Fillmore, a former Davis-Besse employee who
manages a pizza shop. "I don't think it should be reopened
Todd Schneider, a spokesman for FirstEnergy, said the company
made great progress in December. "We certainly expect to see it
returned to safe and reliable service early next year," Schneider
He added, though, that costs cannot be dismissed. "You have to
make a business decision."
Shirley Reif, who helps her daughter run a fitness shop in
downtown Oak Harbor, said she understands that. People in town have
always been divided: In one camp are those who are skeptical about
the safety issues and, in the other, those who are confident the
company will do the right thing.
The balancing act goes on, Reif said. "[FirstEnergy] have put so
much into it and it doesn't seem like they wouldn't reopen it."
"But I don't know," Reif added.
© 2002, Chicago Tribune.
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