Davis-Besse stirs again


THE restart of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Oak Harbor is a vivid reminder that atomic energy can be used to successfully generate electricity for American homes and businesses, but only if the most exhaustive safety precautions are taken.

As the plant's two-year repair outage ends with a gradual return to full power over the next two weeks, it appears that FirstEnergy Corp. has come to terms with and remedied its management and technical problems.

Far less certain is whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been cured of the internal woes that allowed Davis-Besse to become a national symbol of corporate-government coziness and lax federal oversight.

While FirstEnergy has admitted its mistakes, made significant personnel changes, and instituted a whole new culture of safety at the plant near Oak Harbor, reform at the NRC continues to be ephemeral.

Some agency managers with key roles in the Davis-Besse debacle were actually promoted rather than disciplined, even after it was determined that federal inspectors and their supervisors were clueless about corrosion on the reactor head and let the plant continue to operate in a dangerous condition for several months because of concern for FirstEnergy's finances.

One thing certain is the cost of the shutdown - more than $605 million for the two-year period, including replacement of the reactor head, repairs to critical cooling pumps that were found to have design flaws, and installation of a new leak monitoring system.

With Davis-Besse idle, FirstEnergy's purchase of expensive replacement power to maintain service rose nearly four-fold in 2002 and nearly five-fold in 2003.

While FirstEnergy shareholders will bear the brunt of those costs, the company's customers ultimately will pay, too, just as they have been paying some of the nation's highest electric prices for many years. Indeed, the company currently has a proposal before state regulators that would continue those high rates through at least 2008.

The Blade has been a long-time supporter of nuclear power and we actively backed construction of Davis-Besse, which opened in 1977 on the Lake Erie shore. We will not, however, apologize for demanding that the plant be operated under the most rigorous of safety procedures.

Nuclear energy is not to be trifled with, given the extreme consequences of an accident to long-term public health and safety. Shutdown of Davis-Besse on Feb. 16, 2002, averted a nuclear incident at least on the scale of the Three Mile Island mishap in 1979 and, potentially, a reactor meltdown that might have resulted in release of deadly radiation into the Ottawa County countryside and beyond. Similarly, a serious cooling failure in 1986 led to an 18-month outage.

Fail-safe precautions to prevent repeats of such incidents are not optional. It remains to be seen whether the addition of a third federal inspector will be enough to overcome the laissez faire preoccupation in Washington.

FirstEnergy appears ready to fulfill its promise for a safe Davis-Besse.

We're just not sure about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.