Nuclear Terror Near Toledo

Atomic Apocalypse Barely Averted at the Davis-Besse Reactor

by Harvey Wasserman

Ohio is looking down the barrel of a nuclear apocalypse. Its name is Davis-Besse. Reopening it---as its owner wants to do---can be viewed as nothing more than an act of terrorism.

The 900-megawatt atomic reactor near Toledo has shocked even the industry's staunchest supporters. An unexpected leak of boric acid has eaten through nearly six full inches of solid high-grade metal in a critical internal component. Only 3/8 of an inch of carbon steel protection was left in tact when the hole was discovered in February. Soon thereafter a second hole was discovered, raising widespread fears that the reactor could be riddled with untold other seriously deriorated sites.

Boric acid is laced throughout the water that circulates through all Pressurized Water Reactors. Similar structural problems have long been known in the much-vaunted French nuclear industry, whose 55-plus PWRs suffer from a syndrome known as Vessel Head Penetration Cracking, which threatens the entire industry.

As it always does, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is supposed to protect the public, says there is no real danger. But in the same releases it pointed out that the acid has compromised an extremely important safety feature common to all pressurized water reactors, the world's most widespread model. There are 68 other reactors with similar designs in the US alone.

The NRC gets its funding from the industry it regulates, and has long been viewed as little more than a lapdog giving public relations cover to a corrupt, decayed plutocracy. Critics generally refer to it as "No Real Chance" and "Nobody Really Cares." Its chairman, Richard Meserve, recently launched a vicious personal attack against one critic who dared point out that America's reactors are still vulnerable to a terrorist attack from the air.

In the wake of September 11, a global debate led the industry itself to concede that no reactor containment on any commercial nuclear plant could withstand the crash of a jet the size of the ones that brought down the World Trade Center. But while ground security has been increased at most reactor sites, there has been no significant upgrade in the ability of any commercial reactor to survive an attack from the air. When Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute, among others, pointed this out, Meserve went over the deep end.

Which is where all of Lake Erie and northern Ohio would go in the event of an attack or an accident at Davis-Besse. FirstEnergy's aging atomic clunker has been likened to a radioactive jalopy, patched together with twine, hurtling down a steep hill. At the bottom is the prospect of a literal apocalypse, whose radioactive releases could permanently destroy all of northern Ohio and the Great Lakes, the world's largest single reserve of fresh water. A melt-down or terrorist-prompted explosion could kill millions, including much of the populations of Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit.

Davis-Besse is a deteriorating Three Mile Island-style relic which in the 1980s ate millions in funky patches just to keep it on line. Its latest safety shutdown has caused no blackouts or other noticeable strains on the grid that supplies northern Ohio with electricity. FirstEnergy is now buying power from other sources, which are readily available.

The company is also demanding the right to slap in still more cheap fixes and throw Davis-Besse back on line as fast as possible. FirstEnergy has its financial reasons. But even the NRC has started to balk at the profound irresponsiblity of pasting on a few bandaids and then re-firing such an infernal machine. There is talk of replacing some large internal components altogether. But that would take FirstEnergy until 2004, by which time much of the public will have figured out there's no need for this radioactive Rube Goldberg contraption.

Last year nearly 1700 megawatts of windpower were installed in the US alone, more than twice as much capacity as is theoretically provided by Davis-Besse. By 2004 far more capacity could be provided cheaply, cleanly and safely by natural gas or Great Lakes wind machines than by a reopened nuke.

Safety experts have now called for a thorough x-ray examination of every component of Davis-Besse and the scores of other reactors with similar designs. But the attitude of the Bush Administration and the NRC has been that if this might cost FirstEnergy and other reactor owners a few extra dollars, then they won't do it, even if it endangers the future of the planet.

This is a profoundly important moment in this nation's history. This kind grotesque risk being taken with the public safety cannot be tolerated. Davis-Besse must stay shut and the alternatives put in place. To do otherwise would be an unparalleled act of terrorism, pure and simple.


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