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Playing Russian Roulette at Davis-Besse

Nuclear Nightmare on the Great Lakes

by KEVIN KAMPS And MICHAEL LEONARDI

The Great Lakes of North America make up 20% of the Earth’s fresh surface water. Their dynamic ecosystems have been considered by many Native American tribes to function as the heart of the interconnected ecosystems that make up the North American continent known to many of the Indigenous peoples here as Turtle Island. The Great Lakes are known world wide for their biodiversity, beauty, fishing, and trade and shipping routes. These fragile and beautiful ecosystems along with the human populations that live along their shores are under constant threat from the Nuclear Industry that has been slowly and quietly irradiating the heart of the Turtle for decades.

Spent fuel pools of highly radioactive wastes sit dangerously on the shores of lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Ontario. Aging and dysfunctional reactors continue to operate as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy and their Canadian counterparts push to allow these dangerous behemoths to function for decades more, prioritizing corporate profits ahead of public health and safety and the protection of the natural environment. This series of articles will detail this Nuclear Nightmare on the Great Lakes of North America as it has transpired and continues to unfold.

Davis-Besse

The Davis-Besse Nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Erie sits just over 20 miles east of Toledo, Ohio near the town of Oak Harbor. Its’ legacy is one of narrowly averted catastrophic nuclear accidents and negligent mismanagement that has worked to expose the criminal incompetence of the plant’s operator, FirstEnergy Corporation, and complete ineptitude of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in monitoring this facility. FirstEnergy and the NRC are now colluding in an attempt to extend the operating license of this imminent and constant nuclear threat to the citizens of Ohio, Michigan and Southern Ontario as well the Great Lakes ecosystem by another 20 years. The current license expires in 2017.

Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant. Photo by Michael Leonardi.

Davis-Besse boasts the two worst industry accidents in the United States since Three Mile Island and discoveries as recently as 2010 have been enough to bring alarm and outrage to citizen’s groups fighting to protect public health and the Lake Erie Basin from a profit and greed driven catastrophe. A hole in the original reactor head; equipment failure and malfunctions; worker instability, mistakes and incompetence; an F2 tornado; and a concerted effort by the NRC and FirstEnergy corporation to cover-up major systemic problems with the Davis-Besse reactor have led to several near catastrophes in the 34 year history of the plant’s operation. In 2008 a Tritium leak was discovered by chance. Discoveries of cracks in the reactors replacement head in 2010 and subsequent inadequate repairs have been brushed aside by NRC regulators to allow the FirstEnergy reactor to operate full steam ahead until another replacement lid can be put into place in the fall of 2011.

3/16 of an inch from a meltdown?! The reactor with a hole in its head, March, 2002

In 2002 Davis-Besse faced what the U.S. Government Accountability Office describes as "the most serious safety issue confronting the nation’s commercial nuclear power industry since Three Mile Island in 1979." It was discerned that only 3/16th of an inch in a stainless steel covering was the only thing holding back the high-pressure reactor coolant. A breach would have resulted in a severe loss of coolant accident, in which superheated, super pressurized reactor coolant could have jetted into the reactor’s containment building and resulted in an emergency that threatened a chain of events culminating in core damage or meltdown. As summarized by Tom Henry in the Toledo Blade:

…in 2002, Davis-Besse’s old nuclear reactor head nearly burst. The lid was weakened by massive amounts of acid that had leaked from the reactor over several years. The acid induced heavy corrosion on top of the head. Radioactive steam would have formed in a U.S. nuclear containment vessel for the first time since the 1979 half-core meltdown of Three Mile Island Unit 2 in Pennsylvania if Davis-Besse’s lid had been breached. The only thing preventing that was a thin stainless steel liner that had started to crack and bulge, records show. Correcting the problem kept the Davis-Besse [reactor] idle a record two years. Federal prosecutors later described the incident as one of the biggest cover-ups in U.S. nuclear history. Two former Davis-Besse engineers were convicted of withholding information and put on probation; the utility itself wound up paying a record $33.5 million in civil and criminal fines; this represents the "largest single fine ever proposed by the NRC."

The NRC’s own Office of Inspector General concluded that not only FirstEnergy, but also the NRC under the chairmanship of Richard Meserve, had prioritized the nuclear utility company’s profits over public safety. U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich (Democrat-Ohio), responding to the GAO report entitled "NRC Needs to More Aggressively and Comprehensively Resolve Issues Related to the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant Shutdown" – an investigation he had requested in the first place – said:

"The General Accounting Office (GAO) Report highlights shocking, serious and dangerous systemic problems at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Problems that call into question whether the agency can, as it is currently run, continue to perform its most fundamental functions-to protect public safety. This report reveals failures at almost every rung of the bureaucratic ladder at the NRC. The crisis at Davis-Besse is the most serious safety issue to face a commercial nuclear power plant since Three Mile Island. The GAO report shows that the NRC was ill equipped, ill informed and far too slow to react. The NRC’s reaction to Davis-Besse was inadequate, irresponsible and left the public at grave risk."

How early lessons from Davis-Besse could have averted Three Mile Island
According to the NRC Davis-Besse had six "significant accident sequence precursors" between 1969 and 2005, three times more than any other Nuclear Plant in the United States. This includes the September 24, 1977 "stuck-open pressurizer Pilot-Operated Relief Valve", an almost identical accident precursor that unfortunately did lead to a 50% core meltdown at Three Mile Island (TMI), Pennsylvania just a year and a half later. According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission calculations this 1977 accident precursor at Davis-Besse had a 7% "core damage probability" (CDP), making it the fourth most serious accident in the entire industry during the time period in question. The 9/24/77 TMI precursor accident was the first of numerous times "We Almost Lost Toledo."

Very fortunately for Toledo and points downstream and downwind, including Cleveland, the fledgling, six-month-old Davis-Besse reactor was only operating at 9% power when "a spurious half-trip of the steam and feed water rupture control system initiated closure of the startup feedwater valve. This resulted in reduced water level in SG [steam generator]." "The pressurizer PORV lifted nine times and then stuck open because of rapid cycling."

Obscured by such NRC techno-engineering "Nukespeak" is that this unforeseen "break-in phase" accident created instant chaos in the Davis-Besse control room, bewildering the highly trained operators, leaving them in "complete confusion" for over 20 minutes as they tried to stabilize the suddenly and inexplicably out-of- control reactor. Over three hundred bells and flashing lights were simultaneously signaling alarm as a water column displaced the steam bubble "shock absorber" and filled the pressurizer on the very top of the reactor, risking any sudden jolt fracturing safety-significant pipes, and as the Number 2 Steam Generator risked boiling dry, which could cause dangerous overheating and even a "loss-of-coolant-accident" in the hellishly hot reactor core. Operators "grasped at straws," rashly deciding to chuck emergency manual procedures that only seemed to be making matters worse in this unprecedented accident situation. Luckily for the unsuspecting cities just to the east and west, an operator spotted a gauge reading that resolved the perplexing puzzle, and corrective action was taken at the 26th minute of the crisis that brought the situation under control.

Despite such a wild roller coaster ride, almost no one within the industry, including at reactor design firm Babcock and Wilcox, grasped the gravity of this accident. Most NRC officials were of the mindset that Davis-Besse personnel had acted appropriately, that the situation had been satisfactorily resolved, and that there were no more lessons to learn from the incident. However, an NRC regional inspector, James Creswell, from the Chicago office refused to "shut up." After first exhausting normal channels by working, in vain, within the system, Creswell – at great personal risk to his career and livelihood – bypassed his nay-saying chain of command and1directly communicated the significance of the accident, and his unresolved concerns, to the attention of NRC Commissioners Bradford and Ahearne, as well as their technical staff, on March 22, 1979. Tragically, it was too late — the TMI meltdown occurred just six days later, following an almost identical accident sequence as had begun to unfold at Davis-Besse 18 months earlier. Creswell was later honored by NRC for his efforts, as the agency tried to clean up its ruined image after the TMI disaster.

Later in 1977, Davis-Besse experienced another "significant accident sequence precursor," when Emergency Feedwater (EFW) pumps became inoperable during a test. The NRC reported "During EFW pump testing, operators found that control over both pumps was lost because of mechanical binding in the governor of one pump and blown control power supply fuses for the speed changer motor on the other pump." Davis-Besse’s very bad first year of operations was just the beginning.

"The Worst Accident Since TMI" — Loss of cooling to reactor core for 12 minutes, June 9, 1985

Due to a convoluted combination of equipment malfunction and unavailability resulting from deferred maintenance, inexplicable "spurious actuation" in safety critical systems, operator error, and even overzealous security precautions that interfered with emergency actions, on June 9, 1985 Davis-Besse started down the path to a meltdown. Even the NRC admits that Davis-Besse faced a possibility of "core damage probability" when, despite the reactor being scrammed, there was a complete loss of feedwater to steam generators essential for core cooling. The NRC’s summary of the incident states: "While at 90-percent power, the reactor tripped with main feedwater (MFW) pump "1" tripped and MFW pump "2" unavailable. Operators made an error in initiating the steam and feedwater rupture control system and isolated EFW [emergency feedwater] to both steam generators (SGs). The PORV actuated three times and did not reseat at the proper RCS [reactor coolant system] pressure. Operators closed the PORV block valves, recovered EFW locally, and used HPI [high pressure injection] pump "1" to reduce RCS pressure."

Such technical language obscures the fact that plant personnel had to sprint through darkened corridors with bolt cutters, not knowing if they had the proper keys or access cards to open locked security doors, in order to cut through chains securing valves, so they could manually open them to restore water flow to steam generators in order to cool the reactor core, with each passing minute increasing the risk of a loss-of-coolant-accident, nuclear fuel damage, and even a meltdown.

As Dave Lochbaum at Union of Concerned Scientists clearly relates, Davis-Besse came within 37 minutes of partially uncovering the core of its cooling water supply, and 41 minutes of completely uncovering the core; as he points out, TMI’s core was never fully uncovered, but it was uncovered enough to half melt down. As if describing a tense scene from an Indiana Jones movie, Lochbaum also recounts how "Now that the main feedwater pumps and the backup auxiliary feedwater pumps had all crapped out, workers turned to [a dangerously substandard, previously] intentionally disabled motor-driven startup feedwater pump. An operator raced through the plant taking five manual actions in four different locations (including re-installing the fuses)."

As reported by Tom Henry in the Toledo Blade:

Davis-Besse experienced a 12-minute interruption in the feedwater flow to steam generators…The potentially catastrophic event idled the plant for more than a year. …the Nuclear Regulatory Commission referred to the 1985 accident as the worst since Three Mile Island in 1979…A report prepared for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power just days after the June 9, 1985, event suggested that the coolant-water episode at Davis-Besse should not have surprised the NRC. The report said 48 problems concerning Davis-Besse’s auxiliary feed-water system had been reported by [FirstEnergy forerunner] Toledo Edison since July, 1979. The plant unexpectedly shut down 40 times between 1980 and 1985 – at least half of those times because of hardware problems and at least nine times because of human error."

Dubbing it "decades of decadence" at Davis-Besse, Lochbaum has emphasized that had any of the numerous equipment problems been addressed in a timely manner, rather than multiple simultaneous shortcuts on safety taken and maintenance jobs long deferred, the entire accident could have been avoided.

Direct hit by tornado, June 24, 1998

An F2 tornado, with wind speeds of 113 to 157 miles per hour, scored a direct hit on Davis-Besse, with the funnel cloud passing between the cooling tower and the containment building. The control room operators running the reactor at 99% power had little to no advance warning of the twister, until alerted by the guard shack which had spotted it approaching the plant. Although the reactor was then immediately scrammed, a large amount of radioactive decay heat in the core would need to be actively cooled for many hours, even days.

As a safety precaution, operators immediately attempted to initiate the plant’s two emergency diesel generators (EDGs). However, the first EDG initially failed to start, and was forced more than once over the course of the next day to be declared inoperable due to overheating of the room housing it. In addition the second EDG was later declared inoperable "due to an apparent problem with the governor control." This "uncertainty of the operability of the EDGs" was a very serious concern, as the tornado had caused extensive damage to Davis-Besse’s electrical switchyard, as well as to the region’s electrical transmission lines, leading to a complete loss of offsite power that lasted for nearly 27 hours. Thus, the EDGs were needed to cool the thermally hot core, as well as to cool the irradiated nuclear fuel storage pool for over a day.

Complete failure of both the offsite power supply as well as the EDGs, could have led to core damage and even a meltdown in a short period of time, as well as boil off of the radioactive waste storage pool’s cooling water supply, which could have caused spontaneous combustion of the irradiated nuclear fuel within a day or two. Such a reactor meltdown and/or pool fire could result in catastrophic radioactivity releases.

In addition to the dicey electricity supply to run vital safety and cooling systems, Davis- Besse’s emergency alert system and communications were largely destroyed or inoperable. For example, most of the emergency sirens across Ottawa County no longer worked after the electrical distribution system was so severely damaged. Ironically, when needed most, the emergency sirens did not work. Thus, the public would have been "in the dark" had there been radiological releases.

Radioactive Risks Piling Up on the Lake Erie Shoreline

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that Davis-Besse had generated about 557 tons of highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel by the spring of 2010. The DOE projects that if Davis-Besse operates for a total of 50 years (till 2027), it will generate over 900 tons of irradiated nuclear fuel. If it operated a decade beyond that, as FirstEnergy has applied to do, the reactor would generate yet another 20 to 30 tons of irradiated nuclear fuel annually, or an additional 200 to 300 tons during that additional decade of operations.

Davis-Besse’s indoor pool for storing high-level radioactive wastes was packed to the limits by the mid 1990s, at which point it proposed loading horizontal outdoor "bunkers" (unfortified) of concrete and steel – "dry" storage casks – to serve as "overflow parking." The NRC identified serious problems with 3 of the "NUHOMS" dry storage casks, manufactured by Vectra Technologies (later taken over by Transnuclear, Inc., a subsidiary of the French government owned nuclear giant Cogema, now called Areva) fully loaded with irradiated nuclear fuel at Davis-Besse. The casks were discovered to have been built below technical specifications: the aggregate used to fabricate the casks’ outer concrete walls – essential for radiation shielding — was poor quality, and the steel alloy walls of the inner metallic canisters actually containing the irradiated nuclear fuel were ground too thin along the weld lines, in violation of technical specifications. The Toledo Coalition for Safe Energy challenged the safety and quality assurance of this proposal in 1994, but was overruled by NRC, which allowed loading of casks to begin in 1995. Fifteen years later these faulty casks remain fully loaded with high-level radioactive waste onsite at Davis-Besse to this day.

The vast majority of Davis-Besse’s irradiated nuclear fuel is still stored in its pool – vulnerable to cooling water drain downs or boil offs due to accident (such as heavy load drops), natural disaster (such as tornadoes), or intentional terrorist attacks. Without cooling water, wastes in the pool could catch fire within hours, resulting in 25,000 latent cancer deaths, due to large amounts of such hazardous radioactive isotopes as Cesium-137 escaping in the smoke and blowing downwind, depositing lethal fallout as far away as 500 miles. However, as time goes on, more and more dry casks are being loaded with older irradiated nuclear fuel at Davis-Besse, in order to free up room in the storage pool for the hellishly hot and radioactive rods just removed from the operating reactor core during re-fueling outages.

Dry casks themselves are vulnerable to accidents, are not designed to withstand terrorist attacks, and will eventually degrade with exposure to the elements and need to be unloaded and replaced with new containers. Unloading procedures for these casks have yet to be established. The NRC recently updated its "Nuclear Waste Confidence Findings and Rule," asserting that "the nation’s spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored for at least 60 years beyond the licensed life of any reactor and that sufficient repository capacity will be available when necessary." The NRC’s "confidence" in the opening of a repository is suspect: President Obama has cancelled the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada repository, the only "deep geologic" dumpsite to be studied for high-level radioactive waste disposal in the U.S. for the past 23 years. The NRC is thus perpetrating a con game on the American people, and blocking any consideration of irradiated nuclear fuel generation risks in new reactor combined construction and operating license application proceedings, as well as in old reactor license extension proceedings, such as the one now underway at Davis-Besse.

In effect, the NRC has already given its authorization for high-level radioactive wastes to remain at Davis-Besse for a century, until 2077. If the NRC rubber stamps a 20 year license extension, the irradiated nuclear fuel could remain onsite until 2097. However, the NRC Commissioners have also "directed the NRC staff to conduct additional analysis for [even] longer-term storage," ordering staff to submit a "plan to the Commission for the long-term rule making by the end of the calendar year [2010]." It is plausible that the NRC could soon approve irradiated nuclear fuel remaining at Davis- Besse – on the shoreline of the Great Lakes, 20% of the world’s surface fresh water, and drinking supply for 40 million people — for centuries into the future, despite the safety, security, health, and environmental risks.

High-level radioactive wastes are one of the most hazardous substances ever generated by humankind. While electricity is but a fleeting byproduct, irradiated nuclear fuel will remain deadly and need to be isolated from the living environment forevermore. Without radiation shielding, it can deliver a lethal dose of gamma radiation in seconds or minutes, even decades after removal from the reactor. Alpha particle emitters, however, such as Plutonium-239 — a microscopic speck of which, if inhaled, could initiate lung cancer — will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years. Other radioactive isotopes will remain deadly far longer – Iodine-129, for example, has a 157 million year hazardous persistence.

Davis-Besse’s list of ongoing problems continues. As with every operating reactor in the U.S., Davis-Besse has permission from the NRC, EPA and other government agencies to release radioactivity into air, water, and soil on a "routine" basis, despite the fact that every radiation exposure, no matter how small, carries a health risk and those risks are cumulative. On July 31, 2006 FirstEnergy publicly admitted four "occurrences of inadvertent releases of radioactive liquids that had the potential to reach groundwater," adding Davis-Besse to the growing list of 102 reactors in the U.S. that have leaked radioactivity into the environment since the early 1960s. In October, 2008, Davis-Besse admitted an uncontrolled release of tritium – carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic — discovered by a fluke when workers checked fire protection systems.

Then, on June 25, 2009, an explosion took place in Davis-Besse’s electrical switchyard. Well over a year later, the NRC is still investigating the accident, criticizing FirstEnergy’s response as "too narrow in scope," including its failure to specify how it will prevent such explosions from happening again.

There are two scenes in Davis-Besse’s history that seem like they are right out of the Simpsons. In a misguided botched attempt to appease anti-nuclear watchdogs after the loss of coolant accident in 1985, a former U.S. Nuclear Navy submarine commander was brought onboard as plant manager, supposedly in order to make Davis-Besse "ship shape." However, his "command and control" approach left a bit to be desired with the public and even his fellow employees, and he left after just a couple of years. The final straw came during the holidays in the mid to late 1980s, when the plant manager entered the Davis-Besse control room visibly drunk, cursing the busy reactor operators, and having to be physically restrained and dragged out by plant security when he tried to pick a fight. And in November of 2009 a Davis-Besse security guard inexplicably managed to shoot himself in the leg, calling into question the competence, and even safety risks, associated with the reactor’s security force.

The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station has a safety record that should make even the most pro nuclear industry advocates shudder in alarm. The NRC’s complicity in putting corporate profits ahead of health, safety and the environment should be a wake-up call to the citizens living within at least a 50 mile radius of this reactor. Potassium Iodide tablets have been distributed to citizens living within 10 miles of Davis-Besse. What about the rest of the 50 mile radius, which is the evacuation zone that the NRC has recommended around the Fukushima reactors in Japan? Are the residents of Ohio, Michigan and Southern Ontario still willing to put their faith in an NRC with a proven track record of obstructing and misrepresenting clearly dangerous realities to the public?

If the first 34 years have been this troubled, what kind of unpleasant surprises does Davis-Besse have in store in the next several decades? Is an additional 20 years of operations at Davis-Besse, which has already repeatedly experienced more brushes with disaster than almost any other U.S. reactor, worth the risks? Incredibly, 60 years of risky reactor operations and radioactive waste generation at Davis-Besse may be just the beginning. The nuclear power industry, NRC, DOE, and national nuclear labs are now pushing for 80 years of operations at U.S. atomic reactors. Will the radioactive Russian roulette at Davis-Besse end before it’s too late? Davis-Besse should be shut down as soon as possible, and replaced with safe, secure, clean, reliable, and ever more cost competitive energy efficiency and renewable alternatives such as wind and solar power.

For an extensive list of references regarding the information in this article please refer to the Davis-Besse backgrounder located here.

Kevin Kamps specializes in high-level waste management and transportation; new and existing reactors; decommissioning; Congress watch; climate change; and federal subsidies for the Nuclear watchdog Beyond Nuclear. He can be reached at kevin@beyondnuclear.org.

Michael Leonardi is a writer and activist that is currently splitting time between Toledo, Ohio and Italy. He can be reached at mikeleonardi@hotmail.com