Chernobyl, Fukushima... Davis-Besse? Northwest Ohio Nuclear Plant Still Causing Problems With No End in Sight

The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, near Toledo, is in the midst of $600-million infrastructure overhaul (financed by the plant's operator, Akron's FirstEnergy Corp.), which will include the replacement of two mammoth steam generators and will employ around 2,300 people in rural Ottawa County. According to one study, the upgrades will generate roughly $150 million for the state.

That all sounds like a really non-ironic big whoop, except the anti-nuclear crowd has been raising a collective index finger and clearing a collective throat, urging folks to oppose Davis-Besse and its bid for a 20-year operating license renewal in 2017. Davis-Besse, opponents testify, has had the most high-level structural violations per reactor in the country since 2001.

The latest in a series of cracks and corrosions is neither a crack nor a corrosion, but rather an "air bubble," as described by the plant's operator. It was uncovered earlier this month when the reactors were shut down for upgrades. According to reports, the air bubble is 6-12 inches wide and runs the length of a 25-foot gap in the reactor's concrete protective shield. New concrete was poured back in 2011 when the reactor's lid was replaced.

Scene is sympathetic to the fact that this is all extremely difficult to visualize -- we're Google image-searching like mad over here -- but the point is, the aggregate structural deficiencies might be dangerous. Reps from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are still waiting for an update from FirstEnergy about the implications. As of Feb. 20, the best that plant operators could say was that a safety report would be out "later this year."

Senior Inspector Otto Shake did tell WKSU in Kent that the air bubble might impact Davis-Besse's application for license renewal.

"It may be a bit premature to speculate," Shake said. "But suffice it to say that we are evaluating not only the number of times the shield building has been cut, but also the issues that have arisen each time the shield building was cut."

David Lochbaum, an engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that the issues at Davis-Besse are consistent with issues "industry-wide" related to concrete containment towers. Plants in both Florida and New Hampshire (both similar plants, with Babcock and Wilcox corporate parentage) have shut down since 2009 because of costly expenses related to concrete repair.

"It's been around since the Romans," says Lochbaum, of concrete, "and I think some complacency may have set in. Just because it's not rocket science doesn't mean you can't mess it up."

Davis-Besse has messed it up repeatedly. In addition to corrosion and cracking which led to a two-year shutdown back in 2002, a "spiderweb" of cracks was discovered in 2011 when a hole was punched in the concrete during the lid replacement.

Kevin Kamps is the Director of Radioactive Waste at Beyond Nuclear, the anti-nuclear outfit leading the charge against Davis-Besse's license renewal. He says the current air bubble was in fact the result of a re-sealing "rush job" in 2011. FirstEnergy knew about the cracks, Kamps says, but didn't want the public to know and wanted to get the reactors operating again as quickly as possible. Same story when the air bubble was discovered.

"[FirstEnergy] rushed in a PR manner to ensure the public that there was no risk of any kind," Kamps says, "but the concrete containment wall is there to prevent a mother lode of radioactivity from being released, and here nearly 50 percent of it was absent. I don't think there's any engineering analysis to back up their claims."

Moreover, Kamps and the coalition against the FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Commission are dismayed that Davis-Besse's new generators (constructed by Babcock and Wilcox up in Ontario, with significant changes) have been okayed without an NRC license amendment proceeding.

From a press release in May 2013:

"The coalition contends that FENOC's shortcut on safety risks repeating the same sort of dangerous mistakes made at the San Onofre nuclear power plant in southern California. In January 2012 a steam generator tube rupture at San Onofre released radioactivity to the environment, and led to the discovery of widespread tube degradation in replacement steam generators just a year or two old."

"It's really a big experiment," Kamps contends, "but it's turned into a multi-billion dollar fiasco at San Onofre."

The new generators are necessary from a safety standpoint, but Beyond Nuclear and others are wary of the changes, the additional tubes in particular.

David Lochbaum says that the tubes are actually a safety enhancement.

"The more tubes there are, the more heat that's transferred from the core reactor," he says. "There's also business collateral because you're also generating more electricity. It's safety collateral or business collateral, however you want to look at it."

Kamps knows how he wants to look at it: "[Davis-Besse is] a poster child for coming very, very close to major disaster," he says. "And it's all about the company's bottom line. They put more tubes in just to generate more heat to generate more electricity to generate more money. That's it."