Nearly a decade ago, the original reactor head at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Oak Harbor nearly ruptured. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's slow response to that potentially disastrous incident caused it great embarrassment on Capitol Hill.
So it's reassuring that the commission is taking extra oversight precautions for the installation of the third — and, it's to be hoped, final — reactor head at the FirstEnergy Corp. plant.
The NRC has assigned inspectors to monitor the replacement of an interim lid that failed to meet expectations. A state-of-the-art, 180-ton device made from an alloy that is not supposed to break down is being installed at the plant.
The 2002 near-rupture at Davis-Besse endangered northern Ohio more than was realized at the time. It also burned the NRC politically: Its licensing director testified that he had relied on FirstEnergy to act appropriately — only to regret that decision later.
The interim reactor head that went into service in 2004 has broken down faster than expected. It was made from an outdated alloy and could not withstand Davis-Besse's operating temperature, the hottest among the nation's 104 commercial reactors. An NRC spokesman says the commission is especially vigilant now because of Davis-Besse's "history."
The NRC's reputation for being soft on the nuclear industry has made it an easy target for years. Former U.S. Sen. John Glenn (D., Ohio) said the NRC needed to be a "watchdog, not a lapdog." He persuaded Congress to form an Office of Inspector General in 1987 to monitor the NRC's effectiveness.
The 2002 reactor-head event cost FirstEnergy a record $33.5 million in fines for lying to the government. The former head of the U.S. Department of Justice's environmental crimes unit declared FirstEnergy showed "brazen arrogance" and "breached the public trust."
Davis-Besse's history includes design flaws that went unaddressed for almost 30 years, raising doubts about the plant's cooling system and containment procedures if an accident occurred. In 1985, the plant temporarily lost its feedwater — an event that, until its original reactor head nearly burst, was considered the nation's most harrowing brush with nuclear disaster since the core meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979.
Yet on paper, Davis-Besse looked so good by 1997 that a former NRC regional administrator said it had emerged as "certainly one of the better, if not the best" nuclear plants. At least a year earlier, leaking acid had started melting the first reactor head.
The commission responded to Davis-Besse's near-rupture in 2002 with an overhaul of NRC reactor-head inspections. That move has paid dividends. In the United States, 36 nuclear plants have replaced their reactor heads, all of them before they reached the state of degradation found at Davis-Besse.
The NRC remains subject to criticism, but it shows signs of becoming a more-effective regulator. That vigilance must continue, at Davis-Besse and elsewhere.