Even if the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepts FirstEnergy Corp.'s explanation of the cracks in the outer containment shield of its Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, the agency must look more closely at the utility's request to extend the plant's operating license.
Whatever damage the 1978 blizzard caused to the concrete shield building, it seems incredible that the most important part of the plant complex appears not to have been adequately protected against water seepage for 35 years, even though it sits beside one of North America's largest bodies of water, Lake Erie.
It's also distressing that neither FirstEnergy nor the plant's original owner, Toledo Edison, applied sealant to the containment building even though it was applied to other nearby buildings. The utility -- and the regulatory commission -- should have picked up on the need to seal the building's exterior when the structure was twice breached and repaired over the past decade to replace faulty reactor heads.
NRC engineers are on the spot. Either they accept FirstEnergy's explanation -- which would allow the utility a low-cost way out of the mess -- or they reject it. Doing the latter would raise new issues.
The NRC required FirstEnergy to become less reliant on government inspectors, and more adept at diagnosing its own problems, as a condition of the utility's 2004 restart after Davis-Besse's record two-year shutdown.
FirstEnergy worked hard to regain the NRC's trust after the near-rupture of the plant's original reactor head in 2002 led to criminal charges and a record $35.5 million in fines for lying to the government, in what has been called one of the largest cover-ups in U.S. nuclear history.
FirstEnergy says, in effect, no harm, no foul. Officials say the 1978 blizzard, which included gusts of as much as 100 miles an hour off the lake, was an unusual event that has not recurred. They say there has been no subsequent damage.
The NRC approved the outer containment shield for continued use shortly before Christmas. FirstEnergy wants simply to apply a belated coat of water sealant.
But the NRC can't dismiss this event so quickly. It must consider it in the context of FirstEnergy's erratic performance as a nuclear-plant operator. In addition to deceiving the NRC about Davis-Besse's operating status a decade ago, the utility tried to collect $200 million on an insurance policy in 2007. A consultant it hired issued a report, without the NRC's knowledge, that contradicted government evidence with which the utility had previously concurred.
Whether or not Davis-Besse's cracks amount only to engineering artifacts, they suggest a larger problem with due diligence. The NRC should investigate concrete industry standards and codes to determine whether Davis-Besse complies with them. The commission also needs to review critically the plant's safety analysis report.
The NRC must drive home a point it has made to FirstEnergy before: Minimal compliance with nuclear industry standards is not good enough -- especially at a plant the utility wants to operate for another two decades.