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Davis-Besse plant's neighbors fear a community without it

03/04/03

Catherine Gabe
Plain Dealer Reporter

Oak Harbor - Former Realtor David Ison expects to live and die in the shadow of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant.

Nothing wrong with that, he figures.

"If it's going to happen, it's going to happen," Ison said, contemplating the possibility of an accident at the reactor next to his farmhouse.

Ison and other hardy Ottawa County folks depend on the nuclear power plant with its 490-foot cooling tower for jobs and money. Certainly, the discovery last year of a hole in the reactor lid has tested their loyalty, but most residents are eager for the plant to start back up.

"It used to be the safest-operating plant in the U.S.," Ison said. "But then we find out all the safety wasn't in place. It was a betrayal of community trust."

So how does he feel about Davis-Besse now?

The community can't live without it, he said.

Davis-Besse's problems began unraveling a year ago this week. The first news stories reported cracks in the reactor lid. Repairs would take just a few weeks. Soon, however, there was word of a hole the size of a pineapple or a loaf of bread.

Company officials admitted to federal regulators that they had been more concerned about the production of electricity than with safety. Last week, the rust hole earned Davis-Besse the worst ranking from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which said the damaged lid could have ruptured in just a year or two.

Many residents here worry about their future, but it has little to do with living near a nuclear power plant. Their biggest worry is living without one.

The plant pumps $3.8 million in property taxes annually into Ottawa County. The plant's 700 employees pay $3.5 million in state and local income taxes annually, said Todd Schneider, a spokesman for Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., which owns the plant. Davis-Besse is the largest employer in the county of 40,000 residents.

Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon forced tighter security, Scout troops and civic organizations toured the plant. Nuclear terminology became part of the local lexicon, and youngsters took to calling the cooling tower "the cloud maker." Since October, residents have been requesting the annual Davis-Besse glossy calendar, which is filled with residents' photos and emergency tips, focused mostly on nuclear power.

Residents are protective, criticizing outsiders who question the plant's operations. Outsiders include anyone living outside the county, but specifically Amy Ryder of Ohio Citizen Action, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the Toledo Democrat, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland, a Democratic presidential candidate.

Redrawn congressional district lines put the power plant in Kaptur's district for the first time this year. It used to be in the domain of Republican Rep. Paul Gillmor, who remained quiet about the safety issues when they emerged. By contrast, Kaptur and Kucinich have blasted NRC safety oversight, demanded that the nuclear plant remain shut down until every safety concern is addressed and suggested the NRC should revoke FirstEnergy's operating license.

"This community doesn't appreciate Dennis Kucinich walking into our community and telling us to close the plant," said John Schaffner, editor and publisher of The Beacon, a free weekly publication. "Marcy needs to get with the program. This county needs that plant."

"It's easy to fear something that you don't understand," said Darrell Opfer, economic development director of the Ottawa County Improvement Corp. Opfer is a former state representative and county commissioner.

But activist Ryder says residents are in denial - perhaps because of the paychecks and the need to justify living near the plant.

"They are desensitized to the reality of what could happen if there were a nuclear catastrophe," Ryder said. "Nuclear radiation doesn't stay within the county lines."

Ryder's organization informally surveyed Port Clinton and Oak Harbor residents last fall and found they were evenly divided about whether to close the plant. FirstEnergy's Schneider said a poll of 300 Ottawa County residents in February 2001, conducted by a professional pollster, concluded that 79 percent gave the plant a favorable rating. A year later, just weeks after safety problems surfaced, the plant had a 68 percent approval rating, he said.

"Most nuclear plants would die for a 68 percent rating," he said.

You can informally gauge community sentiment by pulling up a chair at the Oak Harbor Hotel and Restaurant, a three-story building that is the tallest in a town that sits a few miles southwest of the plant. Or mosey down the street to the Kozy Corners, a small, comfy restaurant where locals boast about their tight-knit community of 2,200.

With daily news stories about the county's major employer, there is always talk among the locals about Davis-Besse.

"I was against the power plant when it started, but I love my little community," said Donna Wendt-Elliott, a hairdresser and Oak Harbor councilwoman. "It's here, and it's built the economy. If you take it away now, it would be the worst thing for the area."

Davis-Besse was welcomed to the economically beleaguered farm region when it started running in 1976. Some 1,800 jobs had been lost in 1962 when two military installations closed. Housing vacancies were high; the schools suffered.

"We were po'," joked Fred Schnoor, Benton-Carroll-Salem schools superintendent, who graduated from the district in 1964. How poor? The 6-foot-5 Schnoor remembers playing basketball on the school stage. To avoid falling into the stairways at either end, he had to drop into a World War II landing net after doing layups.

Today, the school district is one of the wealthiest in the state, thanks to Davis-Besse. The district gets 70 percent of the plant's property tax dollars.

Deregulation of the electric industry, and the accompanying reduction in generating plants' property tax rates, has reduced some of the bounty. In the past two years, school class sizes have increased, and teaching and administrative positions have been cut. Per-pupil spending has decreased from $9,200 to about $8,200, Schnoor said.

Still, the athletic facilities are of collegiate caliber. The high school in Schnoor's day had a cinder running track. Today's high school, built in 1976, sports an all-weather track, regulation-sized basketball court, natatorium and inside track.

Academically, the district scored a perfect 22 on the recent state report card.

No wonder residents and employees are quick to defend the power plant. Davis-Besse employees have packed recent monthly meetings hosted by the NRC. Employees like Lisa Thomas have appealed to the crowd: "As a parent, I wouldn't work in a facility I didn't think was safe. I have confidence that management is focused on safety."

Outside the meetings, Davis-Besse employees tend to get snarly when approached individually.

"We take it personally. It's our livelihood," said Reggie Strauss. "All of us collectively felt responsibility for the problems out there."

Strauss has worked at Davis-Besse for 19 years, the past eight as a company liaison to the county's Emergency Management Agency.

Davis-Besse's presence has primed the agency for disasters of all sorts. Called the "Davis-Besse plan," the thick document has been easily adapted to cope with ice storms, tornadoes, the collapse of the Lonz Winery in 2000 and a recent train derailment.

As a terrorist precaution, residents near U.S. nuclear plants can get pills to prevent radioactive iodine from being absorbed into the thyroid gland. Officials expected just 10 percent of the 20,000 people near Davis-Besse to get the free pills when distribution started in February. But nearly a third picked them up.

"It's probably a combination of problems at the plant and the concerns about the war" on terrorism, speculated Jim Greer, director of the Ottawa County EMA.

Parents like Kayleen Daup of Carroll Township know that the start of every school year means it's time to fill out "evac forms," outlining emergency contacts for her youngsters in case of a nuclear accident or disaster. Daup, who works at the state license bureau, considers it just another piece of routine paperwork.

Colleague Pam Winters wishes that having a plant nearly in her back yard could get her cheaper electric rates. But, she adds, "We are also very blessed" - with jobs for friends and family, an emergency siren that helped when tornadoes hit last fall and, of course, the high school natatorium, track and gym, which are open to the public.

Even lifelong environmentalist Donna Lueke of Marblehead hopes the plant can continue safely. FirstEnergy courted Lueke after she asked pointed, but balanced, questions regarding plant safety at the public forums held since last March. In January, Lueke got a rare tour inside the plant and reactor.

"I got to see the innards," she said. "It was a little creepy and daunting when we got into the control room.

"It just reinforced my resolve to keep asking questions, because this thing is so powerful and the potential for harm is so great."

Plain Dealer reporters John Funk and John Mangels contributed to this story.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

cgabe@plaind.com, 1-800-767-2821


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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