Let's be perfectly clear about this: FirstEnergy Corp.'s application for a 20-year extension to Davis-Besse's operating license was totally expected when it was announced on Aug. 30.
But still. It's Davis-Besse.
The company's intent to keep the beleaguered Ottawa County nuclear plant in service until 2037 instead of mothballing it when its existing 40-year license expires in 2017 really says more about the state of America's growing energy crisis than it does about the mammoth, Akron-based utility.
Davis-Besse had myriad, well-documented design issues from the day it went into service in 1977, many of which were finally addressed during its record two-year outage earlier this decade.
Remember 2002? That year, Davis-Besse's old nuclear reactor head — weakened by years of neglect — nearly burst. If that had happened, radioactive steam would have formed in containment of a U.S. nuclear vessel for the first time since the half-core meltdown of Three Mile Island Unit 2 in 1979. Federal prosecutors later described that Davis-Besse event as one of the biggest cover-ups in U.S. nuclear history.
Remember 1985? Davis-Besse coped with the scary scenario of a 12-minute interruption in the feedwater flow to steam generators on June 9 of that year, another potential catastrophe.
Harold Denton, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineer who served as Jimmy Carter's right-hand man at the scene of the Three Mile Island crisis, said at the NRC's annual 2004 conference that he considered Davis-Besse's 2002 and 1985 events, respectively, the industry's second and third-lowest points after Three Mile Island.
At that same conference — attended by 1,300 people from 21 countries — then-NRC Commissioner Ed McGaffigan, Jr., chided Davis-Besse in a speech for being the “poster child” of tension between the NRC and the industry. He urged nuclear executives to remember their industry is “only as strong as its weakest members.” Mr. McGaffigan, now deceased, went on to become the NRC's longest-serving commissioner.
Then, there was the press conference in Cleveland in January, 2006, when the federal grand jury indictments stemming from the 2002 cover-up were issued. Tom Uhlmann, the U.S. Department of Justice's environmental crimes chief at the time, looked into the TV cameras and said that FirstEnergy had shown “brazen arrogance” and had “breached the public trust” for keeping the NRC in the dark about Davis-Besse's dangerous operating condition. FirstEnergy admitted no wrongdoing but paid a record $34 million in fines to put the 2002 incident behind it.
Fast forward to 2010. Davis-Besse, which operated virtually error-free since being allowed back into service in 2004, experienced a slight case of deja vu. While there was no evidence of a cover-up this time, multiple nozzles jutting out of the replacement head were found with hairline cracks and weakened metal again. Some leaked reactor acid, though nothing like before. Even though the replacement head was made of an inferior alloy being phased out by the industry, nobody — not even the NRC — expected it to wear down so quickly. Repairs were made. By early summer, the plant was back online.
So would it be wrong for the NRC to grant FirstEnergy's request for a 20-year extension?
Even if the utility has changed its ways, there's still the question of just how well the plant is holding up. Metal fatigues after years of strain imposed upon it by a nuclear plant's enormous heat and pressure. Records show Davis-Besse often is America's hottest-operating plant.
The plain truth is that engineers don't know how long nuclear plants will last. Numerous NRC officials have told me over the years that the original 40-year licensing periods had nothing to do with engineering calculations. They were based on the length of time expected to pay off construction bonds.
Is the optimum period 40 years? 60? 80? Nobody knows.
Is Davis-Besse limping along? Or is it a rejuvenated workhorse?
We wouldn't be having this discussion if America had a clear-cut national energy policy. The new generation of nuclear plants, if they come, are enormously expensive and years away. Extensions will likely be sought for nearly all of America's 104 operating nuclear plants simply because there isn't anything comparable on hand to replace them. The existing fleet may be more than just a stop-gap.
Remember, though, that Three Mile Island Unit 2 never went back into service.
Contact Tom Henry at:email@example.com 419-724-6079.