We Almost Lost Ohio -- And Your State Could Be Next

By Russell D. Hoffman

Did you hear about what almost happened at Davis-Besse, a nuclear reactor in Ohio?

It would have been "10 times worse than Chernobyl" as one eminent scientist I've spoken to put it.

Most people have no idea how close we came to catastrophe. A mere half inch.

Here's the basic sequence, in lay-person's terms:

Davis-Besse is a 900 Megawatt PWR (Pressurized Water Reactor) owned by FirstEnergy Corp.. It is located 21 miles ESE of Toledo, OH. It first went online in 1977. It's getting OLD.

Winds tend to go from the Northwest to the Southeast in that part of the country, but not always. Areas that are variously downwind from Davis-Besse include Sandusky, OH, Cleveland, OH, Pittsburgh, PA, Washington DC, Toronto, Canada, as well as Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey, NYC, Long Island, New England, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina...

On March 11th, 2002, while investigating other leaks in flanges (the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls them "nozzles" but they're really flanges) above (and coming out of) the reactor vessel investigators discovered a hole all the way through the reactor pressure vessel's carbon-manganese six-inch thick steel outer layer. The hole was four inches by five inches wide on the surface when it was discovered. All that held back the 2500-PSI pressure inside the reactor was a half-inch thick stainless steel liner (variously reported as only 3/8ths of an inch thick) -- on the inside of the reactor pressure vessel head -- and the liner was BULGING!

If the liner had cracked, the accident would have been of Biblical proportions indeed. (Imagine a hole in a piece of cardboard, covered with a piece of plastic food wrap, and you push your finger through the hole. That's what was happening to the reactor pressure vessel. How much time was left? Days? Weeks? We'll never know -- luck (or God) saved us because the reactor head was checked just in time. You've heard of Just In Time Manufacturing? This was Just In Time Catastrophe Avoidance!

Had the situation progressed much further, and a crack develop in the liner, the extremely radioactive water explosively rushing out would have, in short order (seconds, or fractions of a second):

*1) Flashed over to steam.

*2) Expanded the hole in the reactor vessel.

*3) Cracked the reactor's fuel rods and thrown their contents towards and out the hole.

*4) Pulverized the fuel pellets as they flew through the hole at tremendous speed, further expanding the hole in the reactor vessel.

*5) Cut a hole in the containment dome like it was made of BUTTER. Yes, I know containment domes are up to about ten feet thick, but this stuff is at 2500 PSI, at well over a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, possibly actually getting MUCH hotter as it's pulverized coming out the hole, and concrete itself pulverizes at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. And there is LOTS of coolant in the system which will virtually ALL get shot out the hole in the pressure vessel like it was coming out of a cannon, along with the fuel rod assemblies and everything else inside the reactor (that is, pieces of irradiated metal, some of which will flash-burn if they come in contact with oxygen). In the end, the containment dome would have a hole in it directly out from where the hole in the pressure vessel was. There would be pulverized radioactive particles spewing into the air and falling onto the ground for hundreds of miles around.

*6) Killed millions of Americans.

*7) Been blamed on terrorists, and we would have bombed another country into Depleted Uranium hell, in the vain belief that it would somehow alleviate our own misery and suffering. But the true culprit was our own technology!

The cost would be in the trillions, the suffering unspeakable, and we wouldn't even know what hit us. A "China Syndrome" would be better than this! Chernobyl would have been better than this! We dodged a bullet. Was it sabotage? Boron doesn't normally corrode carbon-manganese steel. Was something added to the borated water just so that something like this would happen? If so, what? And when? And by whom? Did a worker leave something in the works, which corroded and changed the chemical structure of the water (negligence), or was something placed in the water on purpose?

The above statement was written by Russell Hoffman Concerned Citizen Carlsbad, CA

Below is the CURRENT (March 25th, 2002) Department of Energy (DOE) description of the Davis-Besse reactor. Note the following sentence: "Safety-related problems in its early years tarnished its reputation, but its sale to new owners has brought about a recovery." How inappropriate can you get?!? I bet they'll change this wording very soon, if they haven't already.


The Davis-Besse plant is a single unit reactor located east of Toledo in Oak Harbor, Ohio on the shore of Lake Erie. The site covers 954 acres of which 733 acres is leased to the U.S. government for a National Wildlife Refuge. Safety-related problems in its early years tarnished its reputation, but its sale to new owners has brought about a recovery. The site is licensed for dry storage of spent nuclear fuel and had 3 casks as of March 2000. Operator: FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co.

Owners: Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (51.4%), Toledo Edison Company (48.6%)

Reactor Supplier: Babcock & Wilcox Capacity: 873 net MWe Reactor Type: Pressurized water reactor Date of Operation: April 1977 License Expiration date: 04/22/2017 Electricity Produced in 2000: 6.70 billion kWh 2000 Average Capacity Factor: 87.32%

For a list of all nuclear reactors in the United States: http://www.animatedsoftware.com/environm/no_nukes/nukelist.htm


Sanitized view of Davis-Besse

U.S. Orders Checks For Corrosion At Nuclear Reactors

by Matthew L. Wald

WASHINGTON, March 25 - Nuclear reactor operators have been ordered to check their reactor vessels after the discovery that acid in cooling water had eaten a hole nearly all the way through the six-inch-thick lid of a reactor at a plant in Ohio. The corrosion left only a stainless-steel liner less than a half-inch thick to hold in cooling water under more than 2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch.

At the 25-year-old Ohio plant, Davis-Besse, near Toledo, the stainless steel was bent by the pressure and would have broken if corrosion had continued, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where officials were surprised by the discovery. They said they had never seen so much corrosion in a reactor vessel.

The commission, which has warned plants for years to watch for any corrosion, has ordered all 68 other plants of similar design -pressurized-water reactors - to check their lids. The commission is particularly worried about a dozen of the oldest plants and ordered them to report by early April whether they were safe enough to keep in service. The commission told these plants to demonstrate that technicians there would have noticed such corrosion in their normal inspections, had it occurred.

If the liner had given way in the Ohio reactor, experts say, there would have been an immediate release of thousands of gallons of slightly radioactive and extremely hot water inside the reactor's containment building.

The plants have pipe systems that are meant to pump water back into a leaking vessel, but some experts fear that if rushing steam and water damaged thermal insulation on top of the vessel, the pipes could clog. In that event, the reactor might have lost cooling water and suffered core damage - possibly a meltdown - and a larger release of radiation, at least inside the building.

Such extensive corrosion "was never considered a credible type of concern," said Brian W. Sheron, associate director for project licensing and technology assessment at the regulatory commission.

Small leaks of cooling water are common, Mr. Sheron said, but engineers always thought that if cooling water leaked from the piping above the vessel and accumulated on the vessel lid, the water would boil away in the heat of over 500 degrees, leaving the boric acid it contains in harmless boron powder form. At Davis-Besse, however, it appears that the water was held close to the metal vessel lid, or head, perhaps by insulation on top of the vessel.

Boric acid is used in cooling water to absorb surplus neutrons, the subatomic particles that are released when an atom is split and go on to split other atoms, sustaining the chain reaction.

Engineers are not yet certain why the corrosion occurred.

A nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit watchdog group that is often critical of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the discovery was troubling.

"This is really something that shouldn't happen," said the engineer, David Lochbaum. "You shouldn't get such a huge hole in a pressure-retaining vessel."

Edwin S. Lyman, the scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, an anti-proliferation group based here, said: "This is a pretty serious issue, and it has generic implications. And it was discovered by accident."

Workers stumbled on the problem in the process of fixing a leaking tube that connects to the vessel head, which is 17 feet in diameter and weighs 150 tons. The tube is part of the reactor control system; inside it there is a control rod, which operators can lower into the core to smother the flow of neutrons and stop the chain reaction, or raise to allow the reactor to run.

Technicians discovered that the metal that supports the tube had mostly disappeared.

The plant owner, FirstEnergy Corporation, is hoping to patch the hole, an irregular opening about 4 by 5 inches. But the commission is skeptical about whether this is possible.

No one in this country has replaced a reactor vessel head, although several plants have ordered parts to do so. FirstEnergy ordered a new head just before the extent of the problem became obvious. A company spokesman said the company hoped to install it in the spring of 2004.

That date reflects how the industry, with no new reactor orders in decades in this country, has limited production capacity for such parts.

The plant might also be able to use a vessel head from a reactor in Midland, Mich., that was never completed, or from a similar plant that was retired in 1989.

Davis-Besse, which began operating in 1977, was not designed with the idea that the head would be replaced; technicians would have to cut a bigger hole in the steel-reinforced concrete containment building to get the new head into it.

The company has not said what the job will cost, but Duke Power Company, which operates three reactors similar to Davis-Besse, plans to replace the heads of all three for about $20 million. FirstEnergy could spend nearly that much each month for electricity from alternative sources if it must wait for the replacement part.

Because of the discovery at Davis-Besse, the regulatory commission ordered a dozen other plants to report back within two weeks and prove that inspections they have done in the past would have found any corrosion.

The inspection cannot be done while the plant is running, and if the utilities cannot convince the commission, they presumably face shutdowns of perhaps several weeks just for the checks.

Such shutdowns occurred intermittently in the 1970's and 80's but have become extremely rare as reactors have improved their reliability.

The industry is hopeful, however, that inspections it began under commission orders several years ago, to look for leaks, would have found any similar cases. Those inspections began after the heads of French reactors showed signs of leaks and corrosion.

"It could be something unique to Davis-Besse," said Alexander Marion, director of engineering at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade association. A goal for the investigation at the plant, he said, would be to find out not only why the corrosion occurred but also why it was not noticed sooner.

"The plants are getting older and we're starting to see these kinds of problems," Mr. Marion said.

Source: http://www.NYTimes.com

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