Flaw plagues Ohio nuclear
By Tim Jones
Published September 30,
OAK HARBOR, Ohio --
An undetected 6-inch hole in
the carbon steel layer protecting the nuclear reactor was about the
size of a brick--and slowly getting bigger--when officials at
FirstEnergy Corp. declared the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station
"one of the safest and most reliable" in the nation.
plant inspectors on a routine check discovered the corroded cavity a
few weeks later, in early March, Davis-Besse was immediately shut
down and an unusual and ongoing regulatory chain reaction
Stunned by the
discovery of dangerous boric acid corrosion that had been
threatening the reactor for years, investigators are challenging not
only the safety and maintenance procedures at the plant 25 miles
east of Toledo, but also the reliability of the nation's chief
nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
months of investigations, studies and costly repairs at the
24-year-old nuclear plant, FirstEnergy announced this month that it
wants to reopen Davis-Besse in early December, despite lingering
questions about its safety and that of similar facilities built in
the 1970s. Reopening cannot happen without the approval of the NRC,
which is investigating FirstEnergy for possible criminal negligence,
including charges of falsifying documents.
controversy comes at a time when the Bush administration has
advocated greater reliance on nuclear power. Meanwhile,
congressional critics say government inspections of the nation's
aging collection of nuclear plants are not aggressive
The threat to the nuclear reactor at Davis-Besse, a
site that has a checkered operational history, was discovered in
time to prevent the release of radioactive material. Often
characterized as the worst U.S. nuclear power safety breach since
Three Mile Island, it is more of an incident loaded with dangerous
potential compared with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979,
which resulted in the release of radioactive particles.
fact that the corrosion remained undetected for at least four years,
according to government reports, has brought a torrent of criticism
on FirstEnergy and the NRC.
"This is an example where the
absence of effective oversight has exposed the dangers inherent in
failing nuclear power plants," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a
member of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy Policy,
Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs.
"There is no
justification for reopening that plant given its checkered history
and the inability of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect
the public interest," Kucinich said.
In recent weeks, more
problems at Davis-Besse have surfaced. FirstEnergy reported the
stainless steel liner protecting the reactor was thinner than
officials originally thought. The company also said several
previously undisclosed hairline cracks had appeared in the steel
`Lying or stupidity'
"Every week they're
backtracking from what they've said before, presenting something new
and troubling, and it is either lying or stupidity or both," said
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) , whose Toledo-area district is served by
Davis-Besse. "The NRC and the company have squandered their
credibility with the public."
While FirstEnergy Corp.,
headquartered in Akron, has acknowledged that it put profits ahead
of safety at Davis-Besse, the company insists that a recent
management housecleaning at the plant will ensure safe operations.
"We have a lot of work to do to regain the public's confidence," Lew
Myers, FirstEnergy's chief operating officer, said
Myers said the company will "earn the right to lead
through our behaviors and actions."
The NRC described the
investigation of what happened at Davis-Besse as "long and
involved." Jan Strasma, an agency spokesman, said the corrosion
"does call into question how well or not so well the NRC did with
Davis-Besse and what improvements are needed."
the NRC relied, in part, on assurances from FirstEnergy that the
company's inspectors had given the reactor area a clean bill of
The NRC is expected to issue its findings on what
happened at Davis-Besse in mid-October, Strasma said.
104 nuclear power plants in the United States, 69 of them, including
Davis-Besse, are pressurized water-reactor facilities. Of those 69
plants, 32 are as old or older than Davis-Besse, according to NRC
records. Illinois has 11 nuclear plants with four sharing the same
design as Davis-Besse; those facilities opened between 1985 and
After discovering cracks on nozzles at South Carolina's
Oconee Nuclear Station in August 2001, the NRC sought inspections at
13 plants considered susceptible to similar cracking problems.
Davis-Besse was among those the agency wanted inspected before the
end of 2001.
However, FirstEnergy sought a delay of the
inspection and the NRC granted it. That delay has come back to haunt
the agency because of the danger the corrosion would have caused had
the acid broken through the steel protective layer.
differ on what might have happened if the hole found at Davis-Besse
had reached its reactor.
Strasma said it "would not be a good
situation, but it was within the safety systems to keep a
significant release of radioactive material from escaping." Kucinich
said it would have threatened more than 6 million people who live
within a 100-mile radius of the plant, including the metropolitan
areas of Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit.
`Relying too much on
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the debate over nuclear
power-plant safety has centered on the possibility of outside
threats from terrorists, rather than structural threats from inside.
But David Lochbaum, a nuclear-safety engineer with the Union of
Concerned Scientists, argues that more aggressive inspections within
nuclear plants are needed because they are getting older.
to now we have been relying too much on luck," he said.
NRC's Strasma said his agency has two resident inspectors at each
He said there may have been a slight reduction
in the number of inspectors in the past several years, but nothing
that would suggest a significant cut in inspections. Strasma said
the agency is convinced that other nuclear plants are
Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), who owns a summer home on
Lake Erie in Port Clinton, about 15 miles east of Davis-Besse, said
the mistakes at the plant "were not of the nature that would justify
shutting it down."
"Since there are other plants of similar
design, why not shut them all down?" Gillmor added.
said he believes FirstEnergy when it says it wants to improve
performance at Davis-Besse. "But the problem isn't just broken
equipment. There's been an attitude where problems were tolerated,
and that's a much harder problem. ... You can't change that
Todd Schneider, a spokesman for FirstEnergy,
acknowledged this "kind of change will not happen overnight, but we
are working on it every day.
"We'll improve the reliability,"
There are plenty of skeptics. Terry Lodge, a
Toledo lawyer who represents several environmental organizations in
the area, said, "Davis-Besse should be a showcase for the rapidly
spiraling problems in aging nuclear reactors."
Lodge said his
concern is that the NRC will allow Davis-Besse to reopen before
government and independent investigations have had time to be
completed. If that occurs, FirstEnergy will be able to "effectively
blunt future findings" of guilt.
"If the NRC is unwilling to
close down the reactor, it's writ very large that there is no set of
circumstances short of a Three Mile Island meltdown that would force
the NRC to shut down a plant," Lodge said.
congressional district has been redrawn and will include
Davis-Besse, said she sees no evidence to assure her that the plant
can operate safely.
"Given all that has happened, you have to
wonder what else in there is not operating properly," Kaptur said.
"How are they going to raise our confidence level prior to
reopening? Why would any of us trust
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