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Posted on Tue, Jan. 07, 2003
Future of Oak Harbor, Ohio, linked to reactor

Chicago Tribune


(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 concern.

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 confidence.

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 don't know."

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," Witt said.

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 long.

"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 confidence."

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 FirstEnergy said.

"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 again."

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 said.

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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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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