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Published: Wednesday, 3/24/2010

Safety first

IN THE first major test since a damaged reactor head nearly resulted in a nuclear disaster for northwest Ohio, FirstEnergy and Davis-Besse apparently have taken the lessons of 2002 to heart.

After the Oak Harbor nuclear power plant shut down in 2002, the ensuing investigation revealed that the region had narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe. An acid leak nearly had eaten through the reactor's 6-inch-thick steel cap. Had the reactor's lid been breached, radioactive material would have been released into the containment building, with potentially devastating consequences for the surrounding area.

But more than that, the inquiry discovered a history of covering up problems at the facility, as well as a culture in which safety was not always the primary concern. That led to $33.5 million in fines, numerous firings, sanctions against two employees, and a plant idled for two years as the reactor head was replaced. FirstEnergy had to prove to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission that in the future, indications of problems would be taken seriously.

FirstEnergy vowed to do better, and its response to the discovery of potential flaws on some of the 69 nozzles that jut out of the reactor head suggests the utility is making good on that vow.

When a recent inspection found cracks on four nozzles and other nozzles that appeared questionable, FirstEnergy acted quickly, reporting the problem immediately and inspecting the rest of the nozzles for damage. In all, 12 cracked nozzles have been identified. All indications so far are that the energy company is being proactive and taking seriously its responsibility for the safety of people living in northwest Ohio.

The NRC isn't taking chances, either. It dispatched a special inspection team to examine why the replacement reactor head expected to last for at least 10 years, when it would be replaced by a superior model, was failing after only six years of service.

Davis-Besse, shut down since Feb. 28 for normal refueling, inspections, and repairs, had been expected to be up and running again by about mid-April. Repairing the reactor head likely will delay the restart, although for how long isn't known.

More important, however, is the "root-cause" report FirstEnergy must prepare, addressing the question the NRC team is investigating. Until officials understand why the nozzles are degrading prematurely, Davis-Besse should remain offline. We expect the newly safety-conscious FirstEnergy will agree.

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