academic environmental studies   macalester college
Environmental Studies

Nuclear Power
Home

Why Nuclear Power Now?

Plant Siting

Environmental and Safety Concerns

Nuclear Waste

What Can You Do?

References & Links



Comments & questions to:
jjay@macalester.edu

Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant

    

Three Mile Island is a name that will resound for generations and while it was by far the most disastrous of accidents within the United States, it is not alone in the long list of nuclear power plant accidents that could have potentially damaging effects on both the environment and human health.  The incident and near accident that occurred at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant is a clear example of a time when serious disaster was narrowly avoided and yet it did not rise to the national attention as Three Mile Island did.  On February 16, 2002, workers at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, which is located near Oak Harbor, Ohio, began a standard refueling procedure.  The procedure called for the shutdown of the plant and an inspection of the reactor itself.  During the course of the inspection workers were examining the nuclear reactor vessel head and discovered a football sized hole.  The borated water within the vessel had leaked from its container and had eaten away nearly all of the 6 ½ inches of steel over the football sized area and the possibility of a reactor rupture was dangerously likely if the plant had been allowed to go back online.  Given this information it would seem that the safety check and other procedures that had been but in place are working to prevent disaster.[1] 

However appealing that such belief might be, it is not the case.  Fifteen years prior it had been discovered that leaked borated water, such as what was happening in the Davis-Besse plant, could corrode steel at a dangerous rate.  After the discovery of the hole it was determined that the damage had occurred over the course of six years, meaning that inspection in 1998 and 2000 had somehow managed to overlook the dangerous eroding of the steel head.  Even more damning is that in 2001 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that numerous safety violations at the Davis-Besse plant had created a potentially dangerous situation and issued an order for the Davis-Besse plant to shut down by December of 2001 in order to perform a more strenuous inspection than was normally required.  FirstEnergy, the operator of the plant, resisted the order preferring instead to wait until its already scheduled refueling outage at the end of March 2002.  To avoid a fight the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acquiesced to the demands of FirstEnergy, allowing the Davis-Besse plant to remain in operation three months longer than the original order had stated.[2]

Had the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not been as susceptible to the demands of an energy company or if FirstEnergy had ever been truly concerned with the safety of the plant, the damage would have been found much sooner and the plant would not have been operating in such a hazardous condition for so long.  The Davis-Besse reactor was shut down from March 2002 until 2004 to undergo inspections and repairs.  Over the course of the inspections a multitude of other design flaws were discovered bringing the total cost of repairs and upgrades of the plant to $600 million.[3]  On January 20, 2006, FirstEnergy admitted to the cover-up of a series of serious safety violations within the plant.  In reaction to the incident in March 2002 and the cover-up allegations, FirstEnergy agreed to pay fines of $23.7 million for violation of a variety of safety codes and to provide an additional $4.3 million to the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Habitat for Humanity.[4]  In addition, two past employees and a former contractor were charged with deceiving the NRC inspectors over several years.  These three were accused of falsifying numerous documents and hiding evidence that the reactor pressure vessel was being corroded by leaking borated water.  Other employees were also mentioned in the indictment as providing false information but charges were not brought.

While the $28 million fine is the largest ever collected against an energy company for violating NRC regulations, it is only a fraction of the $878 million that is FirstEnergy’s annual income.[5]  Residents form the area and across the state spoke out because to them it appeared that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was saying that as long as a company has money to pay a small amount they will not be held accountable for nearly causing a disaster that could have exceeded Three Mile Island.  FirstEnergy admitted that it knowingly withheld information concerning the safety of the Davis-Besse plant and misled investigators from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  The 300,000 Ohio customers of FirstEnergy were obviously gravely concerned about the implications of such a potentially dangerous situation but in the end FirstEnergy was allowed to continue operating its reactor at Davis-Besse and paid a small fine when compared to their annual profits.

External Links:
Ohio Concerned Citizens
Union for Concerned Scientists
NRC Release on Davis-Besse

Return to top


[1] “The Lessons of Davis-Besse.”  Accessed April 3, 2006 at http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/nuclear_safety/overview_db.html

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] “Record Penalty Isn’t Enough for FirstEnergy.”  Accessed April 3, 2006 at http://www.portclintonnewsherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060202/ 
OPINION01/602020312&SearchID=73234846089113

[5] Ibid

[6] Image borrowed from http://www.ohiocitizen.org/campaigns/electric/nucfront.html

[7] Image borrowed from http://www.ohiocitizen.org/campaigns/electric/nucfront.html

Davis Besse
A view of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant [6]



hole[7]

Last updated:  5/2/2006


 


Macalester College · 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA · 651-696-6000
Comments and questions to jjay@macalester.edu