KEITH BROWN, PRODUCER: Beyond the icy marshlands off the shore of Lake Erie in Oak Harbor, Ohio looms the Davis-Besse nuclear power station. It supplied electricity to 150,000 people in the northwest section of the state until last year when workers at the plant discovered something alarming. Boric acid leaking from a pipe had eaten away 70 pounds of steel - leaving a gaping six by five inch cavity in the head of its nuclear reactor. Only a thin stainless steel lining protected the community from a potential disaster.
BUCHANAN: This is as serious as it has gotten.
BROWN: We're talking about a hole the size of a football.
BUCHANAN: That's right.
BROWN: How could that go unseen?
BUCHANAN: Well, that's the 400 million-and-counting question at this point.
BROWN: 400 million is about what it will cost to fix the problem the most extensive corrosion of a nuclear reactor this country has ever seen. It's also the closest we've come to a nuclear accident since 1979's near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Had the reactor at the Davis-Besse plant ruptured, the consequences could have been catastrophic.
LOCHBAUM: It's more likely that it would have been a meltdown with a large release of radiation to the atmosphere.
BROWN: That didn't happen the plant was shut down in time. But the safety problems at Davis-Besse raise disturbing questions about nuclear power and its oversight nationwide. Can FirstEnergy, the corporation licensed to operate Davis-Besse, ever be trusted to run a nuclear reactor? Did the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fail in doing its job? And is there another Davis-Besse out there in the making?
BROWN: The plant has been shut down since last February and the company is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get it up and running again. But if one group, 90 miles away, gets its way the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant will stay shut down forever.
BROWN: The group is Ohio Citizen Action an environmental advocacy organization headquartered in Cleveland. It's run by Sandy Buchanan.
BUCHANAN: What makes me angry in this case is that we have a company that at some level either knew what was going on or certainly should have known what was going on in a dangerous situation and chose to place its own production and profit ahead of the public safety. And I just think that's not to be tolerated.
BUCHANAN: We're putting everything we've got into this and we do the best research we can; we try to be as smart as we can about learning everything that's going on and we're determined to do this.
BROWN: Buchanan has been taking on industrial polluters since she joined Ohio Citizen Action 26 years ago. And she successfully lobbied Congress to help pass the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act to shield children from harmful pesticides.
Her staff has mobilized to wage an all-out campaign against Davis-Besse. Going door to door to collect signatures and raise money to stop the troubled plant from ever going back on-line with nuclear power.
RYDER: I think that FirstEnergy has lost their privilege to run this plant. They've had all this time to figure out a way to, to run this plant safely; they failed to do so.
BROWN: Amy Ryder directs the campaign against Davis-Besse. She took us to Oak Harbor to see the reactor.
RYDER: Well when they first announced the hole, I don't think anybody quite realized how serious it was. But once the story unfolded and we started learning more about what was going on, we learned that there was only 3/8ths of an inch of stainless steel that was warped and cracked that was protecting us from what could have been the worst nuclear catastrophe in our history.
BROWN: There was no catastrophe this time. But how bad could it have been if the reactor had ruptured? That depends in large part on the weather conditions, according to nuclear safety engineer David Lochbaum.
LOCHBAUM: Had it been a foggy day where the any radioactive material released from the plant stayed close to the ground then that would have been worse for the people and the farm lands.
BROWN: Lochbaum is a member of the watchdog group, the Union of Concerned Scientists.
LOCHBAUM: Had it been a nice day where the nice dry day where the release went straight up high into the air and was distributed as wide as possible the impact on any one area would have been minimized but the overall impact would have been higher. In either case that's something we shouldn't I wouldn't want to wish on anybody.
BROWN: And in either case, hundreds of thousands of people would have had to flee their homes. And those exposed to high doses of radiation could have faced life-threatening infections and diseases.
BUCHANAN: We really can't forget that this plant sits on Lake Erie, and Great Lakes are the largest source of freshwater in the world. It's the drinking water for literally millions of people. So if there had been any effect on the Great Lakes, we don't you know, we don't know how many people could have been harmed.
BROWN: Numerous investigations of the plant are underway, including a criminal probe to determine if FirstEnergy deliberately withheld information and placed electricity production and profit over the safety of the community.
The industry's own monitoring group, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, formed after Three Mile Island, has already come to its own conclusions about plant management. In a confidential report leaked to the press, the group found FirstEnergy had fallen prey to "excessive focus on short term production goals" and "a lack of sensitivity to nuclear safety."
FirstEnergy says a nuclear catastrophe would have never happened because adequate safeguards were in place at Davis-Besse.
RYDER: To listen to them talk about what had happened in almost sort of a nonchalant way that you know, geez, it was an accident and we'll learn from it, but what's the big deal? You just have to think they've become desensitized to how severe, you know, a nuclear catastrophe will be.
BROWN: The NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for overseeing nuclear power plants nationwide. It's been holding monthly public meetings near Davis-Besse to allay fears and explain what happened inside the reactor.
Boric acid is a chemical common in most U.S. reactors' coolant systems. If there's a leak, boric acid residue eats away at the reactor causing cracks, even holes. NRC regulations require that any boric acid residue be removed routinely.
But NRC regulators became alarmed in the summer of 2001, after discovering cracks and leaks in several U.S. nuclear plants. The NRC issued a bulletin. It asked all plants for specific information about the condition of their reactor heads. After close examination of the material it received, the NRC determined that some plants had serious problems.
BROWN: In the fall of 2001, the NRC identified Davis-Besse as one of 12 nuclear power plants "highly susceptible" to cracking or corrosion. By that January 2002, all of them were shut down for inspection except for Davis-Besse.
The NRC failed to issue a shutdown order and granted Davis-Besse a six-week extension to continue operating, knowing the plant had problems.
MESERVE: There were failings by the licensee and by the NRC in this episode.
BROWN: Outgoing NRC chairman Richard Meserve does not dispute his agency's mistakes but says the decision was based on the information his staff had at the time.
MESERVE: The staff unanimously agreed that there was no safety significance would be attached to allowing a brief period of extended operation.
BROWN: But the findings of an internal NRC report contained some damning information. It found the commission's decision not to close the plant was deeply flawed and was: "…driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact on first energy…"
Meserve defends his staff against that charge.
MESERVE: Safety was in the front of their minds. And to suggest otherwise I think does a disservice to what was happening and to the staff.
BROWN: So, the NRC did not place financial well being of a company over nuclear safety?
MESERVE: Definitely not.
BROWN: So, you stand by the decision that was made to keep Davis-Besse open beyond the scheduled inspection?
MESERVE: With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight the plant should have been shut down. Based on what we knew at the time the decision was correct.
BROWN: The problem critics say is what the NRC did not know. It turns out there were photographs that FirstEnergy had taken that surfaced in the Cleveland Plain Dealer photos with conclusive evidence that something was terribly wrong with the reactor.
BUCHANAN: We know now that there were photos taken in April 2000 that showed the rust pouring out of the plant. It's, it's just inconceivable that they didn't know it was going on.
BROWN: One of those photos that showed rust streaming from the vessel head - with some 900 pounds of crystallized boric acid caked on the reactors corroded lid.
BUCHANAN: Lots of people look at it and say it looks like hemorrhaging. Because it is red rust it looks like blood pouring out.
BROWN: FirstEnergy declined to be interviewed but admits it did not turn the photograph over to the NRC until after the hole was discovered and the investigation was underway.
BUCHANAN: When asked by a newspaper reporter why they didn't produce this to the NRC, the public relations person for FirstEnergy said "Well, it was there for the asking."
BROWN: There for the asking.
BUCHANAN: There for the asking.
BROWN: Who's at fault here? Is it FirstEnergy for not sharing the photograph with the NRC or the NRC for simply not finding it? That's their job.
BUCHANAN: Well they're both at fault. They're both at fault. I mean ultimately, the responsibility for this plant lies with this company. You know, they're the one they're the owners, they're the operators, it's their responsibility.
But the NRC has a very important responsibility too; and they clearly failed in that they had two full-time inspectors at that facility and they didn't notice what was going on either.
MESERVE: This is a troubling incident because there were evidence there was evidence of that there was something happening with regard to the vessel head that was not pursued by the licensee and was known by us and which we should have pursued.
BROWN: Is there an issue of trust here?
RYDER: Absolutely. We're finding that, that people in the community don't trust FirstEnergy to run the plant, and people don't trust the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oversee FirstEnergy running the plant.
BROWN: Still, many residents living close to Davis-Besse want the plant to reopen. At the NRC meeting we attended in Port Clinton, there was tension between the activists who want the plant shut down and the local community.
MAN 1: I'm not a Clevender or Columbus resident. I'm here as a local. Do not let us become another California, where well-intentioned, misguided individuals permitted a state to not prepare for its electrical needs. Thank you.
BROWN: Oak Harbor and other towns in the surrounding area rely heavily on Davis-Besse for their tax base, to run their schools, and help fund local services. It's the county's largest employer - providing some 1,200 jobs. Most residents have a relative or a close friend who works at the plant. Many fear permanent closure will kill the local economy.
BROWN: How about for the people of this community who depend on the plant for jobs, their livelihood, to raise families, to send their kids to college?
RYDER: Right. Right. Well…
BROWN: I doubt if they want to see this closed.
RYDER: Had FirstEnergy run this plant safely, we wouldn't have this dilemma. So had FirstEnergy made the decision to not put production in front of safety, workers' jobs wouldn't be in jeopardy; so that's FirstEnergy's fault, not the community's.
MAN 2: I can't imagine the damage to our community should this plant be closed for good. I'm tired of hearing from a small group of individuals who receive the economic benefits but can't seem to find the backbone to uphold their end of the bargain. I would respectfully ask that the influx of people who have chosen our unfortunate incident as a way to further their cause to pack up and go home.
BROWN: Are you a outside agitator coming in to you know mess up their livelihood?
RYDER: Well I think FirstEnergy would like people to believe that, but no, we've you know we go knocking on doors; we have a lot of members in the area. We have a lot of people that support the work that we do.
BROWN: Ohio Citizen Action emphasizes this is not just a local issue. If there were a nuclear accident here, the radiation could travel as far west as Iowa, as far south as Tennessee, as far north as Canada. That's why Buchanan is pushing hard to shut down Davis-Besse for good.
BUCHANAN: We'd like to see this nuclear reactor permanently closed.
BROWN: Permanently closed.
BUCHANAN: Permanently closed.
BROWN: But FirstEnergy has already bought a new reactor head and is planning on the plant being up and running as early as this spring.
While David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists - the UCS - doesn't favor Davis-Besse closing, he understands the fears of those who do.
LOCHBAUM: UCS doesn't advocate the permanent shutdown of that plant or any plant for that matter. But at the same token we don't live in that backyard. So I can't fault Ohio Citizens Action or anybody who wants that threat removed from their backyard, particularly after they've been put in harm's way under these conditions.
BROWN: Ohio Citizen Action says it wants to eliminate the threat without losing all the jobs. And it proposes an alternative. Do away with nuclear power and convert the plant to gas or coal.
But this story is not only about Davis-Besse. The controversy has sparked interest and concern around the country. The condition of the Davis-Besse plant and of its management culture have broader implications for the other 103 nuclear reactors throughout United States.
BUCHANAN: I think what we're seeing here is the beginning of a whole series of problems that are going to occur because these are aging facilities.
BROWN: And it's not just cracking and leaking in the 12 reactors flagged by the NRC. In the last two years alone, other age-related equipment failures have occurred in seven different reactors.
BUCHANAN: These facilities were started up in the 1970s and they weren't meant to last a hundred years. And it's important that we not just brush that aside.
LOCHBAUM: Is there another Davis-Besse out there, you know, somewhere else? Somebody else who is not doing what they're supposed to be doing, who has allowed safety margins to be eroded.
What Davis-Besse showed us is that those inspections failed. That oversight failed. And we need to do whatever we can to make sure we don't fail again. Because we may not be as lucky next time as we were this time.