George W. Bush's big-money backers at Ohio's infamous FirstEnergy electric monopoly are re-opening the door for a nuclear apocalypse by terror or incompetence (whichever comes first). In classic Bush style, they are trashing public oversight as they go.

The Akron-based FirstEnergy blacked out the entire northeast a year ago, resulting in at least $10 billion in losses to the public. No criminal charges have been filed, though the company has reportedly paid tens of millions in civil suits and has been under grand jury investigation for a wide range of issues.

FirstEnergy's top management, starting with President Anthony Alexander, has poured huge sums into Bush's campaign coffers. Before last year's blackout FE big wigs hosted a fundraiser with Vice President Dick Cheney, raising a reported $600,000.

FirstEnergy has gouged billions from Ohio ratepayers as part of a California-style deregulation fiasco. In its wake, FE extended its reach from northern Ohio to New Jersey, buying the Three Mile Island nuke plant along the way. Promised competition has not materialized, leaving more than four million FE customers hostage to an unregulated monopoly.

FirstEnergy has so badly mismanaged the Perry reactor on Lake Erie East of Cleveland that the timid, industry-owned Nuclear Regulatory Commission has actually threatened to shut it down. Repeated, extremely dangerous pump failures have prompted a rare admission of guilt from the utility itself.

FE also owns the infamous Davis-Besse reactor outside Toledo. Over a six-year period boric acid leaked on D-B's critical reactor pressure vessel, eating a six-inch hole all the way through it. Only a thin shroud and what one expert calls "blind luck" saved all of northern Ohio from a radioactive apocalypse.

The aging, badly built Three Mile Island clone is notoriously vulnerable to terror attack. Recent breakthroughs in windpower have made it possible for northern Ohioans to entirely supplant the rickety reactor with new turbines. Two large wind machines went on line near Bowling Green last September and are running ahead of projections; two more are on their way up.

While D-B was shut for repairs for more than a year, the region suffered no shortages. The reactors on line during last August's blackout worsened rather than lessened the crisis.

The Washington-based Nuclear Information & Resource Service is challenging recent NRC rulings allowing D-B to restart after a fresh round of safety and operating problems. On the afternoon of Monday, August 16, three NRC Commissioners quietly voted to hold a public meeting at 9:25am the following morning. The meeting was part of a legal appeal against the Commission's vote on restart. NRC rules require a one-week notice.

Instead the Commissioners e-mailed notice to NIRS attorneys in Toledo at 8:30 the morning of August 17th, less than an hour before the hearing was to begin. "The Agency sunset its own sunshine law," says NIRS's Paul Gunter. "Whose government is this, anyway?"

U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Cleveland) has called FE's performance "troubling." NIRS had planned to call him and Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) to underscore growing northern Ohio determination to get these reactors shut. In objecting to the Davis-Besse restart, NIRS and local plaintiffs have documented violations of mandatory fire protection for reactor safe shutdown equipment. According to Gunter, FE's fire protection plan relies on "Indiana Jones-style runners" instead of reliable structural firewalls.

Critics also warn the shaky, unstable reactor could be a target for terror attack. A disaster at Davis-Besse or Perry could cause untold casualties along the Erie lakefront, along with incalculable billions in economic damage.

But Toledo Attorney Terry Lodge charges that "when serious safety allegations didn't fit the agency's restart script, NRC omitted them from any restart considerations."

Plaintiff Michael Keegan called the NRC "rogues masquerading as regulators" and demanded Congressional intervention.

Given FE's lucrative ties to the Bush Administration, and the fact that they've walked away unindicted from last year's blackout, only a regime change in Washington is likely to have an impact.


Harvey Wasserman is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. HARVEY WASSERMAN'S HISTORY OF THE US is available at