Hole in the Reactor
NY Times, April 13, 2002
By Daniel F. Ford
This week the FirstEnergy Corporation, owner of the
25-year-old Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Toledo, Ohio, proposed
welding a steel Band-Aid to the top of the plant's cracked nuclear reactor,
now so corroded that 70 pounds of steel have been eaten away. The Nuclear
Regulatory Commission expressed skepticism that this patch-up would
be adequate to prevent a dangerous leak in the reactor, but given this
plant's history, skepticism is hardly enough.
Problems at Davis-Besse aren't new. In 1986, after the nuclear reactor
meltdown at Chernobyl, Tom Brokaw asked me on NBC television which American
nuclear power plant I thought was most likely to experience a catastrophic
accident. One of my top picks was Davis-Besse a unit with the
same design as the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania that had
a partial meltdown in 1979.
Davis-Besse's current troubles began when technicians fixing a cracked
control rod nozzle earlier this year stumbled on a far more astonishing
safety lapse the corrosion in the supposedly fortress-quality
reactor. But for this chance discovery and the immediate shutdown of
the plant, the stage was set for the hemorrhaging of cooling water and
a possible meltdown of the reactor, which could have led to a release
of a large plume of radioactive material.
I was not making a wild guess when I pointed to Davis-Besse in 1986.
For more than a decade I had studied the records of American nuclear
reactors with the M.I.T. physicist Henry Kendall. Davis-Besse's underlying
problems the plant was frequently cited for substandard safety
practices were legendary, yet nuclear safety officials did little
to rectify them.
That large steel pressure vessels might develop dangerous cracks after
years of operation was recognized in the 60's and 70's, yet the Atomic
Energy Commission forged ahead. It required all nuclear plants to install
emergency cooling systems for pipes connected to the reactor. But there
was no such protection possible for the reactor itself, and the commission
simply ruled that the rupture of these vessels was an "incredible
event." Many at the commission knew differently and were concerned
about this and other safety issues.
It's appropriate now, I think, several years after his death, to identify
the Deep Throat who helped acquaint Henry Kendall and me with the problems
in American nuclear power plants. In 1974, at the Cosmos Club in Washington,
Kendall and I were handed a briefcase full of papers by John F. O'Leary,
the director of licensing of the A.E.C. He believed in nuclear energy,
he said, but only if it were done right. And it wouldn't be unless more
details of the problems got out and better regulation was demanded.
We studied the papers and distributed them to journalists. Major reports
ran in the national press.
Maintenance, quality control, equipment testing and inspection
these had been described as bywords of nuclear safety. But most nuclear
plants, according to the commission's own internal audits, were failing
badly on all counts. When we asked O'Leary how he could possibly sign
off on more and more plant licenses, he offered his personal rationale:
Things would leak before they broke. There would be some warning, and
the surrounding area could be evacuated in time.
Today we have dozens of aging (and corroding and creaking) nuclear
plants, licensed in the 1970's, operating close to our major cities.
The reactor with a hole in its head at Davis-Besse is proof that the
reforms and safety upgrades promised after O'Leary's revelations and
Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have not, to put it delicately, had
full success. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has let Davis-Besse
operate year in and year out with documented bad maintenance. It may
seem melodramatic but is probably accurate to say the N.R.C. safety
inspection program is on a par with our hit-or-miss airport security.
With federal regulation having proved ineffective, it may now be time
for the attorneys general in states with trouble-plagued nuclear plants
to take potential meltdowns seriously. They could join together, as
they did in litigation concerning cigarettes, and some of those plants
might just find their licenses revoked.
Daniel F. Ford was executive director of the Union of Concerned
Scientists from 1971 to 1979 and is author of "Three Mile Island"
and "The Cult of the Atom: The Secret Papers of the Atomic Energy