Protesting Efforts At Davis-Besse

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Karen Schaefer: More than a hundred area residents and activists from Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan came to Crane Creek State Park last Saturday to protest repair efforts at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant. With the plant's cooling tower a hazy sentinel on the horizon just four miles away, they sang, picnicked, and listened to speeches calling for the permanent closure of Davis-Besse.

Davis-Besse has actually been shut down since a re-fueling outage in mid-February. In March, workers discovered that leaking boric acid had eaten a six-inch hole nearly through the lid of the reactor. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent a special investigation team to determine the cause of the damage. It quickly became clear that owner FirstEnergy had ignored multiple signs of a problem no one ever dreamed could develop at a nuclear facility. The NRC began holding public meetings to share information about the damage and proposed repairs. But new revelations came thick and fast - a second hole, air filters daily clogged with rust, escaping radioactive particles, and boric acid deposits so thick they had to be removed with a crowbar. In April, the company admitted its plant maintenance had failed. But by then, public trust in FirstEnergy - and federal regulators - had sunk to an all-time low.

Donna Lueke moved to Marblehead a few years ago. On clear nights she can watch as the sun sets behind Davis-Besse. When she heard in June that the company was setting up its own independent panel to oversee repairs, she says she was appalled.

Lueke isn't the only one to equate the actions of the Davis-Besse management with the recent rash of corporate financial scandals. Numerous federal criminal investigations and congressional inquiries have been launched, although their results are still pending. Harvey Wasserman is a former Green Peace activist and an Ohio resident. He says when the state utilities commission gave FirstEnergy the right to recoup more than $8 billion in nuclear plant cost overuns under deregulation, the company essentially re-financed its two Ohio plants at bankruptcy prices.

But at the NRC's monthly meetings at Oak Harbor High School, FirstEnergy officials and nuclear regulators tell a different story. Jack Grobe, who heads the federal team overseeing the company's restart plan, says he's perfectly satisfied with the composition of Davis-Besse's independent review board.

At the same meeting, FirstEnergy announced a major restructuring of its Davis-Besse staff. Plant president Howard Bergendahl admits his company made poor management decisions. But he says the staff has learned from its mistakes.

But apologies don't satisfy Tim Dussell who lives in Fostoria, about 30 miles from the plant. He's one of dozens of protestors who have not attended the NRC's meetings. Dussell believes federal regulators won't listen to what he has to say.

The NRC does invite public comment, but rarely allows questions of Davis-Besse managers. Nonetheless, it's not surprising that residents concerned about developments at the plant are reluctant to come forward. Taxes from Davis-Besse have given Oak Harbor residents a school system far grander than most small towns. And apart from tourism, the plant is Ottawa County's largest employer. In the meantime, repairs at Davis-Besse are still going forward. It remains to be seen whether more local protests will have any effect on FirstEnergy's plans to restart the plant before the end ot the year. At Crane Creek State Park, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.

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