Residents Fear A Future Without Davis Besse

Davis Besse power plant near Oak Harbor. [Roger Lumpkin / ideastream]
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Ohio has two nuclear power plants – one is about 30 miles east of Cleveland. The other, Davis Besse, is 90 miles to the west. Both of their futures are up in the air right now: sale, closure, bankruptcy are all a possibility. And no matter what happens to Davis Besse, big changes are likely coming.

There’ve been scares at the plant in Ottawa County before – cracks found in 2011 in the concrete building that protects the nuclear reactor raised doubts about its safety. The issue lingered for years. But the plant’s license, which would have expired in April, was renewed in 2015. Now it’s the market that’s putting pressure on Davis Besse – natural gas-powered plants are pushing out older nuclear and coal plants in Ohio and nationwide. The First Energy subsidiary that runs Davis Besse has about $3 billion in debt, and about $1.5 billion in assets.

And residents like Becci Petersen are worried. Petersen runs the Rocket Shop, where employees are printing and packing school-themed shirts on a recent morning.

“This is probably the first time that it’s been a very real possibility that it could actually close down. I realize it was never meant to be there forever but it’s just, it’s scary," says Petersen.

Petersen’s shop is on Water Street in Oak Harbor, the main commercial drag in the village closest to Davis Besse.

“It’s scary to think that, at any time, that if they want to come in and close it. It would dramatically change the dynamic of this entire community," says Petersen.

First to be hit would be the schools. Property taxes from the plant make up about 40% of the local district’s annual revenues, says Benton-Carroll-Salem Schools Superintendent Guy Parmigian.

“I actually have a picture of Davis Besse's plant in my office and I often point to it because there's been good times financially for our school system because of Davis Besse nuclear power station," says Parmigian.

In the '80’s, the three school, 1500 student district built a new pool, an auditorium and a fitness center. Davis Besse is the biggest employer and biggest tax payer in Ottawa County. Lose it and taxes will most likely go up for everyone else. But there’s another issue - Parmigian says Davis Besse has already applied with the state to have the plant’s tax rate cute.

“The ball park number we're looking at that we could lose as a school district due to the write down is in the ball park of 3-5 million dollars out of a twenty-million-dollar budget, which is obviously quite a chunk," says Parmigian.

That loss of revenue, if approved, happens regardless of whether the plant stays open. First Energy, the Akron-based parent company of Davis Besse, is, in industry lingo, getting out of the competitive generation business. That means they plan to no longer produce energy here in Ottawa County or anywhere else in Ohio.

But that doesn’t mean Davis Besse will close. Bills in front of the Ohio House and Senate would offer subsidies to the company’s two nuclear power plants in the state. They’re dubbed Zero Emission Nuclear credits, or ZEN. That, says Charles Jones, First Energy CEO, would provide about $300 million a year – still not necessarily enough to prevent the subsidiary that operates the plants from declaring bankruptcy.

“It would be enough potentially for those assets to emerge from bankruptcy, for a reputable nuclear operator to take them on and run them forward," says Jones.

Those bills are in committees in the state legislature right now. Joe Halle is the thirty-one-year-old mayor of Oak Harbor. Since taking office last year, he’s been meeting with legislators and answering questions from residents worried about what’s going to happen.

“I pray it doesn’t shut down because I don’t want to see the aftermath in this community, let alone the county as a whole," says Halle.

Halle says he’d like to see the state house pass a bill that would help keep the plant open. So far the house and senate bills introduced to do that have a total of three sponsors.

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