March 17, 2004
Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant Shutdown – One Day After Restart – Shows Flaws in Regulatory System
Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program
Barely 24 hours after the FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company restarted the Davis-Besse nuclear plant, it is being shut down again due to the failure of two types of valves, one of which could allow radioactive steam to be released into the air. Two of these valves at Davis-Besse were found to be inoperable as the reactor was being restarted.
While it is appropriate that the plant is being shut down after this discovery, it is troubling that these problems were not identified previously by either FirstEnergy engineers or U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) plant inspectors, especially since the valves were likely malfunctioning before the plant’s February 2002 shutdown (otherwise, they wouldn’t have malfunctioned so quickly) and apparently were not adequately tested during pre-startup exercises of the plant late last year and early this year. Worse, a list of problems that the NRC had with Davis-Besse – a list that had not been fully addressed at the time that the NRC approved the restart of the plant – did not even include the malfunction of the valves that caused this recent shutdown.
FirstEnergy, in downplaying this event, claims it expected to “find some issues along the way.” It is important to note the original cause for shutdown two years ago, the massive corrosion and deterioration of the reactor’s vessel head, was itself a problem found “along the way” as the plant was being refueled and inspected for other problems. According to NRC officials, Davis-Besse has the disturbing distinction of being the site for the second and third worst American nuclear incidents after the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979. (The corrosion was the second; coolant problems in 1985 led to the third.)
It appears that Davis-Besse is, at best, a mediocre plant that still poses dangers to the surrounding region. This continuing saga highlights what happens when regulators act as promoters of the industry they are supposed to oversee. It is apparent that the NRC is captured by the nuclear industry – Davis-Besse is a glaring example of this inherent conflict. What other dangers await discovery at the nation’s 102 other nuclear reactors – reactors that have not been the focus of increased industry and regulatory scrutiny for the past two years, as Davis-Besse has? It is astounding that even though Davis-Besse was under a magnifier, officials still missed problems. Again, we call for the NRC to keep Davis-Besse shut down and to penalize FirstEnergy appropriately by revoking its license to operate it.