October 1, 2002

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Flaw plagues Ohio nuclear plant

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By Tim Jones
Tribune staff reporter
Published September 30, 2002

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.

When 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 began.

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.

After 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.

The Davis-Besse 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 enough.

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.

The 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 coating.

`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 recently.

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."

Strasma said the NRC relied, in part, on assurances from FirstEnergy that the company's inspectors had given the reactor area a clean bill of health.

The NRC is expected to issue its findings on what happened at Davis-Besse in mid-October, Strasma said.

Of the 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 1988.

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.

Opinions 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 luck'

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.

"Up to now we have been relying too much on luck," he said.

The NRC's Strasma said his agency has two resident inspectors at each nuclear plant.

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 safe.

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.

Lochbaum 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 overnight."

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," Schneider said.

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.

Kaptur, whose 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 them?"

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune

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