April 2002

The Hole in the Reactor

NY Times, April 13, 2002
By Daniel F. Ford

[Posted 15/04/2002]

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 Commission."

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