Tough enough to last?


Firstenergy Corp. seeks to extend the operating license of its Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Oak Harbor for another 20 years. Opponents contend that the cracks found in the reactor’s concrete shield building last fall are signs of substantial deterioration.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing panel is hearing arguments on the issue today and tomorrow in Toledo. Its members need to keep an open mind, especially after Hurricane Sandy forced unplanned shutdowns last week of three East Coast reactors and forced the commission to monitor many other nuclear plants.

NRC engineers have determined that Davis-Besse is not falling apart. The question is whether it will be robust enough to last until 2037, two decades after its original license — issued in 1977 — is scheduled to expire in 2017.

FirstEnergy attributes the cracks in Davis-Besse’s outer containment building to unusual thawing and freezing during the blizzard of 1978. The NRC accepts that explanation. Yet that building never had weather sealant applied to it until last August, to protect it from inclement weather along Lake Erie.

Opponents of a license extension for Davis-Besse want the NRC to recalculate an important engineering analysis to take account of the cracks. The NRC uses the report to estimate how well a nuclear plant would hold up under hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes.

The NRC’s safety board recently agreed with FirstEnergy that the opponents made a procedural error when they requested the new analysis. A utility spokesman told The Blade that it’s “all about process,” and that if the board believes information about the cracks should be included, it will be.

But process should not be controlling. A unit of the Crystal River nuclear plant in west central Florida has shown similar cracks. It has not gone back into service since its first crack was found in 2009.

Davis-Besse may be fine now. But if its cracks have the potential to affect its capabilities years from now, they should be factored into engineering calculations, not dismissed because of procedure. The NRC must affirm that the plant is as safe as FirstEnergy says it is.