By U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, 10th District in the U.S. House
If an airline pilot failed an annual exam, and the Federal Aviation Administration simply lowered its standards to allow that pilot to continue to fly, would you board the flight? If a surgeon failed a licensing exam, and the medical board simply lowered its standards and allowed the surgeon to continue to practice, would you look for another doctor?
Davis-Besse, a nuclear power plant just 30 miles from downtown Toledo, does not provide the same margin of safety that it did when it was built 34 years ago. Will we allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to simply lower its standards?
A year ago, The Associated Press conducted an in-depth analysis of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s treatment of age-related deterioration at nuclear power plants. The AP concluded that the NRC “work(ed) closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them.”
The AP examined “tens of thousands of pages of government and industry studies…, along with test results, inspection reports and regulatory policy statements…over four decades.” Those records “show a recurring pattern: Reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance with the rules. Studies are conducted by the industry and government, and all agree that existing standards are ‘unnecessarily conservative.’ Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.”
Several nuclear engineers and former regulators “call the approach ‘sharpening the pencil’ or ‘pencil engineering’—the fudging of calculations and assumptions to yield answers that enable plants with deteriorating conditions to remain in compliance.”
Pencil engineering is exactly what is happening at Davis-Besse. Cracking has been discovered in the concrete wall of the shield building. The cracking is so extensive that the NRC concluded that the entire “vertical outer rebar mat” no longer provides any structural strength to the wall.
The cracking is so extensive that the wall is now “non-conforming to the current design and licensing bases …” In layman’s terms, this means that, given the condition of the shield building wall, FirstEnergy would not be issued a license to operate Davis-Besse today under the criteria that were used in 1977.
FirstEnergy’s response was to recalculate the strength of the wall under a new methodology. The NRC has officially accepted that recalculation and allowed Davis-Besse to operate, even though the margin of safety in the strength of the shield building wall has clearly been reduced.
In their four-part series last year, the AP reporters wrote about this precise situation:
“The fact is, a containment building could fail in a severe accident. Yet the NRC has allowed operators to make safety calculations that assume containment buildings will hold.
“In a 2009 letter, Mario V. Bonaca, then-chairman of the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, warned that this approach represents ‘a decrease in the safety margin.’ ”
A “decrease in the margin of safety” at Davis-Besse invites undue risk. Since Davis-Besse was originally licensed in 1977, FirstEnergy’s management has caused many near-disasters, including two incidents that Harold Denton, the former director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, referred to as the nuclear “industry’s second and third-lowest points after Three Mile Island.”
In 1977, a feedwater valve stuck and engineers were barely able to prevent a partial meltdown after more than 20 minutes of “complete confusion.” In 1985, the reactor core lost its cooling for 12 minutes. In 2002, the only thing that stood in the way of a burst reactor head and a release of radiation was 3/16 of an inch of a bulging steel liner.
Would you accept living next to a nuclear power plant with any decreased safety margin?
Would you board a plane whose pilot had been approved to fly with a decreased proficiency? Would you go under the knife with a surgeon whose competency requirements were reduced by a state medical board?
Davis-Besse was designed to have a 40-year life expectancy. Its operating license expires in 2017. FirstEnergy and its shareholders will have reaped the profits they expected from the reactor. Any extension of the Davis-Besse license, for which FirstEnergy has already applied, would give FirstEnergy windfall profits. FirstEnergy always has put profit ahead of safety. Should it now be rewarded for that conduct?
It is time now to say “Enough is enough.” After Fukushima, “pencil engineering” Davis Besse into “compliance” is not acceptable. FirstEnergy must either massively repair Davis-Besse or close it.
Dennis Kucinich, D-Cleveland, is representative of the 10th District in the U.S. House.