On October 10, 2011, news broke at Davis-Besse that cracking in the concrete containment shield building had been discovered, during breaching operations to install the third lid in a decade atop the problem-plagued reactor. As revealed much more clearly by a photo included in a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) report (but not until eight long months later!), that original cracking discovered was actually quite wide. The photo that NRC displayed prominently on its homepage, however, showed cracking that was more difficult to make out.

  FirstEnergy and NRC have called such concrete containment cracking “unique OE [Operating Experience].” But at Crystal River, Florida, however, a “self-inflicted wound” proved fatal – containment cracking due to a botched steam generator replacement so severe, the only fix would have been a multi-billion dollar containment replacement. Crystal River was permanently shutdown.

  Davis Besse’s shield building is a critical component of the radiological containment. It is a 2.5-feet thick rebar-reinforced cylinder, 144-feet in exterior diameter, and 279.5 feet tall, with a domed roof. However, it turns out that even when brand new, the shield building was never designed to withstand the destructive forces of a meltdown. That critical job falls to the 1.5-inch thick inner steel containment vessel, which surrounds the reactor pressure vessel itself. The containment vessel is corroded, both at the top, and at the bottom. All the shield building is there for is to fend off tornado-driven missiles, and to contain radioactive gases escaping from the containment vessel just long enough to filter, only partially, before release to the outside atmosphere.

  At first it was thought the breaching itself had caused the cracking. But FirstEnergy found the cracking extended far and wide, spider-webbing across the shield building, not just at the construction opening. Both FirstEnergy and NRC assured the media and the public that they would resolve the issue before Davis Besse was allowed to restart. But this was a bait and switch.

  We later learned through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request we filed that FirstEnergy wanted to restart by November 19, 2011. But NRC had too many questions, and FirstEnergy was changing its story on an ongoing basis. But NRC staff worked long hours into the evenings, over weekends and even through the Thanksgiving holiday, to get FirstEnergy what it wanted – a Confirmatory Action Letter on December 2, allowing a rushed reactor restart. FirstEnergy fired Davis Besse up within hours, and by December 6 was operating at full power. Rather than resolving the cracking before restart, NRC gave FirstEnergy until December 28, 2012 to publish a Root Cause Report on the origin(s), extent of, and corrective action(s) for the cracking.

  Significantly, FirstEnergy had hurriedly sealed shut the construction opening, burying the primary, visual evidence of the troubling cracking under fresh concrete.

  U.S. Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) did a tremendous public service during this time period, exposing the truth. He demanded an NRC public meeting before restart, but they refused to hold it until a month afterward. At the January 5, 2012 meeting at Camp Perry, just down the road from Davis Besse, Kucinich confronted both FirstEnergy executives and NRC officials, and revealed that the cracking was so severe along the outer rebar layer of the shield building wall that it had to be considered entirely structurally dysfunctional. Top NRC officials refused to disclose the documents, and dared us to use FOIA against them, which we did. We did not get their “partial response” until over six months later, but there were many smoking guns. For example, NRC safety staff, pre-restart, were concerned (still are, presumably) that any additional small load (tornado-driven missile, earthquake, meltdown) may be all it takes to collapse the shield building’s outer 27 inches, leaving only the inner three inches of concrete and rebar.

  Our coalition – Beyond Nuclear, Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwestern Ontario, Don’t Waste Michigan, the Green Party of Ohio, all represented by Toledo attorney Terry Lodge – intervening against Davis Besse’s 2017-37 license extension, filed our first cracking contention in the proceeding on January 10, 2012. Over the next eight months, especially based on the “partial” FOIA results, we filed a half-dozen more major cracking contentions, many hundreds of pages in length.

  On February 28, FirstEnergy published its Root Cause Report, blaming the blizzard of 1978 for the cracking. We instantly dubbed that the “Snow Job of 2012.” In fact, FirstEnergy’s report was so half-baked, NRC sent it back to the oven. The fine print attached to FirstEnergy’s mid-May revised Root Cause Report was quite revealing. Based on NRC lines of questioning, we identified 27 other likely contributing root causes. One example was that cracking had first been documented on the dome in August 1976, 1.5 years before the blizzard of 1978. That top-down flow path for water was admitted by both NRC and FirstEnergy’s contractor as a top candidate root cause, but FirstEnergy did not even include it in the report.

  Once FirstEnergy published its “Aging Management Plan” for the shield building cracking, it became a major bone of contention in the proceeding. We have challenged its inadequate methods of monitoring, number of data points to be taken and frequency of testing. We have also challenged FirstEnergy and NRC’s “red herring focus like a laser beam” on one kind of cracking – sub-surface laminar – when there are numerous at play: radial, shrinkage, surface, micro-, and dome. Other forms of shield building degradation are also worsening, such as spalling and rebar corrosion (itself a cause of concrete cracking).

  FirstEnergy’s only “corrective action”? To weather seal the shield building, albeit 40 years too late. FirstEnergy slapped 2,500 gallons of paint across the 100,000 square foot exterior, between August and October 2012. We dubbed that the “White Wash.” It would come back to haunt FirstEnergy.

  To show the cynicism of the NRC’s so-called Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), our “oral argument pre-hearings,” to determine if we were even worthy of an actual hearing on the merits, were scheduled in Toledo on Election Day 2012. Despite NRC’s and ASLB’s obvious hope that no media would show up, the Toledo Blade did come and report on the kangaroo court session. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day (again, to suppress media and public awareness), the ASLB rejected every single one of our cracking contentions without holding a hearing on the merits, based on the flimsiest of legal technicalities.

  Our efforts in 2013 focused on Davis Besse’s risky, experimental steam generator replacement project. The Sierra Club joined us for this leg of the intervention. Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Associates, served as our expert witness. Gundersen served as Friends of the Earth’s expert at San Onofre, California, where a botched steam generator replacement resulted in the permanent shutdown of two reactors, and a multi-billion dollar boondoggle. Gundersen clearly showed that Davis Besse’s new steam generators were significantly different than its old ones, thus requiring fully adjudicated, transparent license amendment hearings. We also warned the required shield building breach would worsen the cracking. Gundersen testified that he knew of no containment breached more times than Davis Besse. The ASLB would hear none of it, and quickly rejected us.

  But in September 2013, FirstEnergy admitted the “impossible” had happened: new cracking had appeared, and old cracks had grown. They had adamantly denied this was even possible. Then in February 2014, more shocking admissions: the rushed restart patch job, to bury the evidence of the cracking in December 2011, had left a void, or air gap, 80 percent of the way through the shield building wall. Thus, Davis Besse had operated at full power for more than two years with a severely compromised shield building. What if a tornado missile had hit that soft spot? In addition, FirstEnergy admitted that a significant stretch of rebar had been broken and damaged in breaching operations for the steam generator replacement.

 In July 2014, FirstEnergy belatedly published its “ice-wedging crack propagation” Root Cause Report (#3!). Weather sealing the shield building exterior had locked water in the walls. Each and every time it freezes at Davis Besse, this causes the cracks to grow by 0.4 to 0.7 inches. FirstEnergy admitted the cracks could grow 10.8-inches in just two years. It turns out that FirstEnergy had known water was in the walls since early 2012, but hadn’t let anyone know. They covered it up for two and a half years, as we were contesting multiple cracking contentions.

  Despite these admissions and the cover up, the ASLB in January 2015 rejected every single new cracking contention we filed in 2014. Remarkably and absurdly, the ASLB concluded its rejection by agreeing with us that the concerns we had raised are serious and urged FirstEnergy and NRC to look into them. That is exactly why we had fought for three and a half years to win a hearing, to force FirstEnergy and NRC to address the cracking, but were blocked time and again by the ASLB.

  In mid-2012, the Japanese Parliament published its Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe. It concluded that the root cause – the reason the nuclear power plant was so very vulnerable to the natural disasters – was the collusion between supposed safety regulator, nuclear industry and elected officials. We have long had that in spades at Davis Besse.

  Davis Besse’s original 40-year license expires on April 22, 2017. What a great way to celebrate Earth Day, with Davis Besse’s permanent shutdown! We must do so, to prevent a meltdown.

Go to beyondnulear.org for more information.