Feb. 16, 2002. The date will be etched in the annals of American nuclear history - not for what happened at Davis-Besse, but for what didn't.
Through sheer luck, the nation's biggest nuclear accident since Three Mile Island in 1979 was avoided by the mere width of a pencil eraser. FirstEnergy Corp. has admitted it sacrificed safety for production. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has conceded it was oblivious to the near-hole in the plant's reactor head and some of the site's other longstanding problems. And the two-year outage has cost the utility more than $605 million.
“Safety was not an afterthought,” FirstEnergy spokesman Richard Wilkins said. “But there were clearly some decisions made [prior to the shutdown] when a [production] schedule was given more significance that it should have.”
To FirstEnergy's critics, the date focuses attention on longstanding allegations that the nuclear industry and the NRC have had a cozy relationship. They contend it stands out as the date that a senior-level NRC official, Sam Collins, arbitrarily chose to shut down the plant after bowing to industry pressure.
So what really has changed in the two years that Davis-Besse has been offline?
While the NRC vows there will be long-term safety benefits for the nation, skeptics fear the industry has marshaled its way through another high-profile embarrassment. And with $3.8 million in property tax revenues and 700 employees paying $3.5 million in state and local income taxes a year, Davis-Besse has significant leverage with local politicians.
Fourteen political units of Ottawa County, from Port Clinton to rural townships, have passed resolutions in favor of restart. “There needs to be an end in sight. We need to get back in the business of operating it,” Ottawa County Administrator Jere Witt said.
A dissenting voice has come from Kelleys Island in neighboring Erie County, where 150 residents signed a petition calling for permanent shutdown because they're leery of being trapped on the tiny Lake Erie island if a meltdown occurred.
There are signs that those in power at the national level also are eager to put the ordeal behind them.
In an Oct. 30 speech in Columbus, President Bush extolled the virtues of nuclear power while calling on Congress to pass his national energy bill. But the President said nothing about the fact he was standing about 100 miles south of the nuclear industry's biggest crisis in the last quarter of a century.
Nor was there any mention of Davis-Besse when Joe Colvin of the Nuclear Energy Institute delivered a Nov. 24 speech in Washington in which he claimed the industry's confidence was running high during the 50th anniversary of former President Dwight Eisenhower's famous Atoms for Peace speech on Dec. 8, 1953 - a watershed mark for the creation of the nuclear industry.
Finally, there was no mention of Davis-Besse when Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a Jan. 9 speech in Tokyo that the United States and Japan “must deal with a similar array of political and regulatory challenges” to promote nuclear power. But critics say the speech that looms largest was one delivered April 16 in Washington by NRC Chairman Nils Diaz. Installed in that position only 15 days earlier by Mr. Bush, Mr. Diaz told 1,200 people from 15 countries that Davis-Besse never put the public in danger.
Laboratory tests months later showed the opposite: In at least one mock-up, steel of simulated thinness blew apart. The NRC had learned by then that if Davis-Besse's reactor head had blown open and radioactive steam had formed in the containment building, the backup emergency cooling systems probably would not have worked. That, in turn, could have left workers scrambling to avoid a meltdown potentially worse than Three Mile Island.
Opponents said they fear the impact of Davis-Besse hasn't truly sunk in. “The hole in the safety net that's still there is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service said.
He and others question why the NRC has done virtually nothing to discipline those involved with Davis-Besse. Mr. Collins, the one who set the compromise shutdown date, was promoted. So was Jim Dyer, who - as former administrator of the NRC's Midwest regional office - had jurisdiction over Davis-Besse before the reactor head's near-hole was discovered.
“How can [the NRC] make changes when they haven't even acknowledged underlying problems?” asked Jim Riccio, Greenpeace nuclear policy analyst.
The NRC has said institutional weaknesses are being addressed through recommendations made by the agency's Lessons Learned Task Force.
David Lochbaum, a Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer, said one thing that'll stick with him is “that big gap between perception and reality.” For several years prior to the Feb. 16, 2002, shutdown, Davis-Besse scored near-perfect evaluations from the NRC. On March 21, 1997, another former NRC Midwest regional administrator, A. Bill Beach, went so far as to say he viewed Davis-Besse as “certainly one of the better, if not the best, performers in the region.” The NRC's Office of Inspector General has said it was obvious the agency was clueless to what was going on.
Some want Congress to take a harder look at the NRC's relationship with the industry - something which has only been done sporadically since former U.S. Sen. John Glenn (D., Ohio) introduced a bill in 1987 that ultimately established the inspector general's office within the NRC as an internal watchdog. A House subcommittee report that same year concluded that the NRC had failed to keep an arm's length from the industry it was assigned to regulate.
U.S. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) are among those raising questions. “There was a failure at every rung of the bureaucratic ladder at the NRC,” Doug Gordon, Mr. Kucinich's press secretary, said.
FirstEnergy claims it has learned from Davis-Besse. It vows never to let down its guard again, even though people recall similar promises made in December, 1986, when an outage that had lasted more than 18 months was about to end. That outage was centered around problems that had allowed a series of pumps and valves to fail, causing a temporary loss of coolant water over the core - a precursor to a meltdown.
For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse