TOLEDO: The unexplained cracks in the containment building of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant may be more about transparency, oversight, and political opportunity than imminent threats of danger.
Yet each of the former affects the latter. They cannot be shrugged off, especially by an industry that is trying to regain public confidence a year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
There are legitimate questions about how forthright FirstEnergy Corp. was as it gathered information that took the investigation down a more serious path.
After insisting last October that cracks in the building’s outer portion were cosmetic and confined to a “decorative” part of it, FirstEnergy came across flaws in the structure itself. That elevated concerns about the building’s structural integrity and its ability to perform its vital safety-shield function.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Cleveland, is miffed that FirstEnergy did not update the public about the plant’s status as new information emerged. He says the utility was content to let northern Ohio remain in blissful ignorance.
Others say the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed in that regard, too.
Kucinich said his legal staff found out how deep the cracks were after sifting through records others haven’t seen. He demanded a forum to air such findings. The NRC obliged with a Jan. 5 meeting at Camp Perry, attended by 300 people.
Yet neither FirstEnergy nor the NRC released engineering data they used to conclude the shield building was fit to go back into service shortly before the holidays. The agency said citizens’ only recourse is to seek the data through the federal Freedom of Information Act, a process that can take months. Or watch for future reports.
In other words: Trust us. The utility got a thumbs-up even though it is still weeks away from issuing a report that will describe the root cause of the cracks.
That report is key to Davis-Besse’s future. It will describe how the cracks formed and how old they are. FirstEnergy’s application to extend Davis-Besse’s license by 20 years is on hold until that report is issued.
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, emphasized a new spirit of cooperation at the public meeting. She said she was “grateful” the NRC had improved its oversight of Davis-Besse — a far cry from the sharp words she used 10 years ago, when she said she had “zero confidence” in the NRC and called for the permanent closure of Davis-Besse.
Those comments came after the nuclear industry was rocked by the near-rupture of Davis-Besse’s original reactor head — a level of degradation that was never fathomed.
A previous U.S. Department of Justice investigation that led to a record $33.5 million in fines against FirstEnergy showed the utility had doctored reports and failed to do maintenance that would have headed off the problem. Loose acid burned through all but a thin lining that had started to buckle and crack.
Davis-Besse has fared well since the NRC overhauled inspection programs nationally because of the earlier dispute.
The NRC credits those improved procedures for catching problems early on with Davis-Besse’s second reactor head in 2010. That lid was expected to last a lot longer, even though it was made of an outdated alloy.
But there’s an issue of faith. FirstEnergy irked the NRC in 2007 when it tried to recover $200 million from an insurance policy by portraying the 2002 debacle as a fluke. The claim, which was eventually dropped, was submitted without the NRC’s knowledge.
FirstEnergy filed the claim months after a former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor said the utility had shown “brazen arrogance” and “breached the public trust” for misleading the agency about the plant’s status.
Nobody lauds a nuclear plant that’s safe 99 percent of the time. The Fukushima disaster, regardless of how unlikely it seemed, reminded the world that no scenarios are off limits.
Ultimately, we either learn from our mistakes or are doomed to have history repeat itself. Either way, faith should not be assumed.
Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for the Toledo Blade. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.