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