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Published: Saturday, 10/1/2011

Editorial

Toward safer nukes

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is 71 for 71 in granting utilities' requests to extend the operating licenses of their commercial nuclear power plants. Nine of those extensions have come since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan last March.

But FirstEnergy Corp. and DTE Energy should not assume that the NRC will automatically renew the licenses of their Toledo-area nuclear plants, Davis-Besse and Fermi 2 respectively, for another 20 years. Both utilities must do more to strengthen their cases for extensions.

Demonstrations scheduled for today in Toledo and Monroe do not necessarily indicate that Americans are climbing aboard the anti-nuclear bandwagon after the release of radioactivity in Japan. But the two local nuclear plants -- Davis-Besse especially -- raise questions about how much faith Americans should place in the nation's aging nuclear fleet.

Davis-Besse could serve as a stopgap until replacement power is available. That could take the form of a more-modern type of nuclear reactor, or cleaner and safer renewable energy developed to provide around-the-clock power.

Advocates say a technology known as compressed air energy storage is making wind and solar equipment capable of delivering power even when the wind is not blowing and sunlight is absent. By contrast, they compare Davis-Besse to a used car that has been on the road too long.

FirstEnergy needs to show that Davis-Besse will be safe enough to continue operating until 2037, instead of being retired when its license expires in 2017. The utility cannot merely argue that the power Davis-Besse generates would be hard to replace.

FirstEnergy and DTE could take giant steps to protect the people who live near their plants by heeding calls by the Union of Concerned Scientists to transfer more spent radioactive fuel to dry, on-site storage casks. The disaster at Fukushima was not nearly as horrific as it could have been because little waste was stored in the complex's spent-fuel pools.

Japan reprocesses its fuel. For myriad political and environmental reasons, the United States does not. At the same time, President Obama has virtually halted funding to create a national repository for spent-fuel storage inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

So spent fuel either gets stockpiled inside nuclear plants, where it poses the greatest danger, or it is transferred to dry casks, where it is safer. On-site, dry-cask storage is not ideal, but it's better than the status quo.

The near-rupture of Davis-Besse's reactor head in 2002 led to a record $33.5 million in fines, criminal prosecutions, and an overhaul of the utility's nuclear division. Harrowing memories of the plant's temporary loss of feedwater in 1985 linger.

The plant has had design problems since it went online in 1977. Many of them were fixed during a two-year outage that ended in 2004. But last year, Davis-Besse's replacement head -- made of a metal alloy that the nuclear industry is phasing out -- was shown to be deteriorating much faster than expected. The installation of a replacement head was scheduled to begin today.

Fermi 2 is one of 23 U.S. plants with a reactor design similar to that used at Fukushima. It is licensed until 2025. DTE has told the NRC it plans to file a request in 2014 that the commission extend that plant's license by 20 years.

The NRC needs to apply Fukushima's lessons to all U.S. nuclear plants, starting with those that have a similar reactor design. And utilities must make sure that their requests for license renewal can stand up to more than a rubber stamp.



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