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Posted on Wed, Mar. 05, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Davis-Besse, one year later
FirstEnergy hopes troubled nuclear reactor will be ready to restart next month. Meanwhile, politicians debate punishment

Beacon Journal business writer

It's cliche to say all politics is local.

But when it comes to theDavis-Besse nuclear power plantin Oak Harbor, a lot of politicsis downwind.

Today marks the first anniversary of when workers encountered problems that led to the discovery of boric acid damage on the reactor. Later, two cavities were found on top of the reactor.

Owner FirstEnergy Corp. now hopes to finish a series of repairs and get Davis-Besse ready to restart ``in the April time frame,'' a company spokesman said Tuesday. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has final say.

Some Ohio politicians say they're aghast at what happened and what they have learned since the damage was found, and are calling for the revocation of FirstEnergy's license to operate the reactor. Other officials say although they are concerned, they'll monitor the plant's status while making sure federal regulators do their jobs.

In addition, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a 29-page report this week severely criticizing the NRC's oversight of the plant. Author David Lochbaum wrote that the NRC ignored its findings at previous problem plants when it allowed Davis-Besse to keep running past a Dec. 31, 2001, safety inspection deadline. Evidence shows FirstEnergy and the NRC knew the reactor had been leaking boric acid for some time before that, a probable violation of FirstEnergy's operating license.

Members of Congress Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur say the more they learn and look into Davis-Besse and the NRC, the more they don't like.

Kucinich has petitioned the NRC to revoke FirstEnergy'sDavis-Besse operating license.

FirstEnergy's 20-page response, sent last Friday to the NRC, asks the agency to deny Kucinich's request because the petition ``contains numerous allegations that are unsupported, incorrect or mischaracterize existing documentation.'' The utility's letter also says some claims are ``patently false'' and that Kucinich fails to raise any new issues or provide significant new information.

If the pineapple-size cavity in the reactor head had ruptured and a worst-case fuel core meltdown happened, all of Northeast Ohio, which is downwind of the Lake Erie shoreline plant, would have been affected, Kucinich said. Kucinich's district includes the west side of Cleveland and is less than 100 miles east of Davis-Besse.

``This is not just some private matter between FirstEnergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,'' Kucinich said. ``There is an overriding public interest in getting all the facts, so the public interest can be protected.''

The NRC did not do its job, he said.

If FirstEnergy has admitted it failed to observe safety standards, deliberately withheld information from the NRC and misrepresented the plant's condition, how can the utility keep its license, he asked.

At the same time, ``nobody wants to see FirstEnergy fail,'' he said. ``I want them to succeed. But they should reapply for the license. They weren't the management that built that plant. But they bought it.''

Kaptur's district is home to Davis-Besse.

More needs to be known about how the NRC allowed the plant to delay a mandatory safety inspection in 2001 that would have discovered the reactor damage sooner, she said. Kaptur said plant management and regulators need to be held accountable.

``I think we've learned the truth will out,'' Kaptur said. ``The NRC has been -- I can't think of a mad enough word. I want individuals held responsible.''

But not everyone likes what Kaptur, Kucinich and other critics have to say.

In Ottawa County, whereDavis-Besse is the largest employer with more than 800 jobs, County Commissioner Carl Koebel said while he and other local officials were shocked at the damage found at Davis-Besse, he thinks some of Kucinich's and Kaptur's comments were inappropriate and uninformed.

Koebel said he has attended every monthly NRC meeting at Oak Harbor and Port Clinton about Davis-Besse. ``I have not seen Kucinich or Marcy Kaptur at one of those,'' he said.

Koebel said he's pleased with the repairs at the plant and in making employees more safety-conscious.

Ottawa County Administrator Jere Witt said both FirstEnergy and the NRC are correcting the mistakes they made at the plant. Witt is a member of a restart overview panel that was set up to have independent oversight of the restart process atDavis-Besse.

``I'm comfortable with the changes they are making,'' Witt said.

Sen. George Voinovich, chairman of a subcommittee that oversees the NRC, said, in a written statement, that ``I made it clear to the NRC that their most important priority is safety and that they should be focused on that above all other issues.''

The NRC gave Gov. Bob Taft a one-hour briefing last week on Davis-Besse, a spokesman for the governor said.

Taft said afterward he is satisfied the plant will not restart until repairs are finished and there is a much-improved safety culture among all plant personnel that will ward off future problems, the spokesman said.

Davis-Besse still needs to pass several tests before it can be restarted, FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said.

Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists said it's more likely that Davis-Besse will be ready to be restarted in May or June, based on past experiences at other troubled nuclear plants.

Finding a ``showstopper'' problem at this stage of repairs and oversight that would keep the plant shut down for a long period is unlikely, he said.


Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com
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