Wednesday, Jun 29, 2016
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Besse's sirens lack power backup

Davis-Besse has no backup power for its emergency sirens, according to a group opposed to nuclear power, a claim that is confirmed by First Energy Corp.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which advocates against the use of nuclear power, yesterday said it has learned, from public information it had been trying to obtain from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since February, that Davis-Besse and 27 other complexes are entirely reliant upon electricity from their regional grids.

That, according to the group, means that residents who live near those complexes might be endangered if a particular combination of events occurred: A reactor meltdown resulting in an airborne plume of radioactive gases while main power lines have failed for whatever reason.

The anti-nuclear group said it expects Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) to present this and the fact that Monroe County's Fermi II is one of 17 facilities with adequate backup to a U.S. Senate panel this morning.

There are 54 sirens in the 10-mile emergency planning zone that surrounds the Davis-Besse complex. Forty-nine are in Ottawa County and five are in Lucas County.

Although the Ottawa County sheriff's office and the county's emergency management agency are involved with emergency planning, the NRC has said it is the sole responsibility of FirstEnergy Corp. to maintain Davis-Besse's sirens.

Richard Wilkins, a spokesman for the utility, confirmed last night that FirstEnergy does not provide backup power for its sirens. "They're looking at it," he said.

He said emergency planning includes other components, such as plans for door-to-door canvassing by emergency workers during evacuations and frequent messages broadcast on radio and TV stations.

Paul Gunter, the anti-nuclear power group's reactor watchdog project director, said it's "absurd to suggest that with an approaching radioactive cloud an already overburdened police or fire department driving around neighborhoods with bull horns or along roads, some possibly impassible, can adequately compensate for deliberately leaving these sirens inoperable."

Mr. Gunter's group has been joined by 16 others in calling for full backup power for sirens affiliated with all nuclear complexes. In addition to the 28 sites with no backup, the groups said they found 18 sites with only partial backup.

Nuclear power plant evacuations are very rare.

But emergency planning for them must be done regularly as part of utility licensing requirements.

The most high-profile evacuation occurred in March, 1979, as Three Mile Island's Unit 2 reactor was in the process of a partial meltdown, the only such accident in the nation's history.

But even that evacuation was delayed by then-Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh. At a 2004 NRC conference in Washington, Mr. Thornburgh acknowledged that officials were in the dark about what was happening inside Three Mile Island.

Back then, there were no cell phones, and the Internet was not in household use. Mr. Thornburgh said he held off on the evacuation order for fear that it could lead to injuries by inducing panic.

Neither NRC nor FirstEnergy officials contacted by The Blade yesterday knew exactly why Davis-Besse has no backup power for its sirens.

The plant has been the object of close scrutiny the past three years.

In 2002, the near-rupture of its old reactor head was discovered - the industry's most troublesome scenario and the single biggest example of neglected maintenance since Three Mile Island.

Davis-Besse was one of several nuclear plants that lost off-site power during the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout, the nation's worst.

Just a few weeks ago, the NRC cited FirstEnergy for supplying more inaccurate and incomplete information to the government - this time, about an unrelated problem with Davis-Besse's sirens.

Inspectors found a computer synchronization problem that showed the local sheriff's office would have been unable to activate the 49 sirens within Ottawa County between April 27 and May 7, 2004, and that the system was vulnerable to being inoperable for as long as a month.

Eliot Brenner, director of the NRC's public affairs office, said the NRC is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to get more backup power for sirens nationally.

The NRC on Friday rejected a petition from Mr. Gunter's group on the grounds that jurisdiction over the issue may belong to another agency.

But Mr. Brenner said the NRC is "very much interested in ensuring there are as many levels of redundancy as possible."

Mr. Gunter said the agency should be more aggressive and take the lead on the issue.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.

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