Federal regulators will brief the public this week on their inspection of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo. Last month it was discovered that severe corrosion had eaten nearly all the way through the 6-inch thick lid of the plant's reactor vessel. Since then plant owner FirstEnergy has admitted it failed to inform the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about earlier signs of leaking acid and corrosion. Ohio Congressional leaders are now calling for an investigation of the plant's safety. Meanwhile, energy markets are waiting to hear if the NRC will require costly inspection outages at any of the nation's other 68 nuclear plants of similar design. 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned plant operators last August that cracks could develop in the control rod nozzles that penetrate reactor heads. Cracked nozzles were first discovered a year ago in a South Carolina nuclear plant. During an inspection last month, workers at Davis-Besse found five cracked nozzles - and something more. Boric acid leaking out of the reactor had eaten a six-inch hole in the reactor lid. A second, smaller hole was also found. Only a thin steel liner remained intact to contain the reactor coolant under extreme high pressure. That liner was bent. NRC spokesperson Jan Strassma says even if the liner had broken, back-up safety systems would have prevented a loss of coolant.
Jan Strassma: It was within the capabilities of the plant's emergency systems to continue pumping water into the reactor and to maintain the reactor in a safe and cool condition. However it would be a significant challenge to those safety systems and, obviously, something that needs to be avoided at all costs.
David Lockbaum: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission knows with a report they released last year that in 82% of the nuclear power plants in the United States, those systems will not work.
KS: But industry watchdogs are less reluctant to call the Davis-Besse damage a near miss. David Lockbaum is a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. He says even more alarming is the revelation that Davis-Besse owner FirstEnergy Corporation failed to report earlier signs of corrosion to the NRC.
DL: Back in 1998 they were getting boric acid crystals on the outer surface of the reactor vessel so thick that they couldn't see the metal and they couldn't see the damage that was there. Their design requirements didn't allow that boric acid to be there, so the discovery of the boric acid itself should have been enough to send up an alarm. And you know, they're paying a huge price.
Todd Schneider: Five and ten for the repair work on the current head. A new head costs aound $4 million, but with installation, it could be between $15- and $20-million.
KS: That's what FirstEnergy spokesperson Todd Schneider says it will cost to fix the damage at Davis-Besse. Schneider doesn't have cost estimates for what energy market analysts say could be an even larger bill, the cost of an extended outage and the possibility of having to buy electricity during peak summer months.
TS: Obviously, we're not going to move forward until we have approval from the NRC on our repair. And our top priority is returning the plant to safe condition.
KS: But a loss of credibility could hurt FirstEnergy just as much. Last week an industry survey commissioned by the NRC revealed FirstEnergy repaired, but did not report signs of minor corrosion on a second company-owned reactor in Pennsylvania. Toledo Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur says she's considering a Congressional investigation into the safety of the Davis-Besse plant.
Marcy Kaptur: This is not the first time that Davis-Besse has had problems. I am going to talk with members of our Congressional committee who have oversight on energy to see if there's not a way that we could do a special hearing about this plant and others like it.
Dennis Kucinich: I support Congresswoman Kaptur's call for a Congressional investigation. I'm actually on one of the subcommittees of the house which has oversight of the NRC.
KS: Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland says he's not satisfied that repairs to the existing reactor will be enough to protect public safety.
DK: There are six million people who live within a 100-mile radius of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant. And what I'm asking for is the replacement of the entire reactor lid.
KS: FirstEnergy does have a new reactor head on order, but it will be two years before it is ready to be installed. So far, the extensive corrosion seen at Davis-Besse appears to be isolated. But energy markets are already responding to concerns that the NRC could order lengthy inspection outages at other plants. Tomorrow the agency will receive inspection reports from 68 U.S. plants. Together they produce nearly two-thirds of the nation's nuclear energy, which accounts for 20% of the total electricity market. This Friday the NRC will hold public meetings near Davis-Besse to discuss their findings at the plant. And next week, FirstEnergy will meet with the NRC in Washington to discuss how they propose to repair the damage. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.