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May 21, 2002

 



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Editorials | Article published Tuesday, May 21, 2002
Who’s on FirstEnergy?

Electric utilities like FirstEnergy, which own nuclear power plants, shoulder much responsibility for public concerns about the safety of nuclear power. Those fears are hindering wider use of a much-needed source of energy, which has big advantages over coal, natural gas, and oil. There are abundant domestic and other secure supplies of uranium fuel, for instance. And unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power does not contribute to global warming.

Because of its enormous potential, we have taken a positive view of nuclear power’s prospects, and supported construction of nuclear power plants, including FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor.

The great "rust hole" fiasco at Davis-Besse is a sad example of how neglect of good operating practices at one facility can reinforce public concerns, hurt an entire industry, and ultimately undermine long-term energy security for the United States.

In February, with Davis-Besse safely shut down for maintenance, FirstEnergy inspectors discovered that corrosion had eaten a hole in the six-inch thick steel wall of the reactor vessel. The cause was a leak of highly corrosive water that had gone undetected, apparently for years.

The vessel is like a huge sealed pot that holds the nuclear reactor and water needed to cool the reactor and prevent a meltdown. With the inside pressure at 2,250 pounds per square inch, a hole can have horrendous consequences. Water vital for cooling the reactor would blast out like a fire hose, setting the stage for a reactor meltdown if other safety systems failed.

Only a thin stainless steel liner inside the vessel wall prevented that at Davis-Besse, and the liner was under great stress.

The rust hole episode is being called nuclear power’s closest brush with disaster since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.

Although the leak announced itself, FirstEnergy personnel failed to listen.

One wake-up call would have alerted many homeowners maintaining a central air conditioning system. Rust mysteriously began to clog air filters at Davis-Besse in 1999. Filters usually good for a month had to be changed every other day.

That’s the tendency, of course, to heap all the blame on FirstEnergy - which deserves its share.

But what was the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission doing all those years as the water dripped and corroded the reactor vessel? The NRC is supposed to assure the safety of the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants. The NRC had inspectors on the Davis-Besse site. Their most recent report card on Davis-Besse’s performance gave the plant straight "A’s."

The NRC has been the forgotten factor in nuclear power’s fall from favor. Electric utilities and nuclear power technology get blamed for near-misses like Davis-Besse and actual accidents, like Three Mile Island. In reality, more effective regulation might prevent such problems.

The Davis-Besse incident was as much a failure of the NRC’s regulatory process as it was a utility’s failure in its own inspection and maintenance responsibilities.

NRC Chairman Richard A. Meserve should order an agency self-inspection, starting at the Chicago office, which oversees Davis-Besse. The NRC should identify the individuals, circumstances, and specific lapses responsible for the incident, and make a full public accounting.

A broader, agency-wide investigation should focus on the institutional milieu that allows periodic breakdowns in the NRC’s ability to carry out its safety mandate.

Major lapses have been rare. But this is an industry that defines the term "zero-tolerance," where one major regulatory lapse can have unthinkable consequences.



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