Nuclear Reactors Bankrupting their Owners

John LaForge

On January 22, FirstEnergy Corporation announced that its faulty and nearly-self-destructed Davis-Besse power reactor east of Toledo, Ohio, will be closed well before its license expires. But the shutdown is not because the reactor represents reckless endangerment of public health and safety. The old rattle trap can’t cover its costs any more, not with the electricity market dominated by cheaper natural gas, and renewable wind and solar. 

Davis-Besse’s early shutdown date has not been announced, but CFO James Pearson of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., the corporate division in charge of the wreck, said the reactor will close if lawmakers don’t approve a taxpayer bailout. 
FirstEnergy said the financial sky was falling in March 2017 too. Its chief nuclear officer Sam Belcher [his real name] told the Toldeo Blade then -- as the firm was preparing to float SB 128, the bail-out, through the Ohio legislature -- “The situation is urgent. In the absence of something happening, [a taxpayer handout for the private, investor-owned company] we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.” So far, state lawmakers have refused to save the decrepit reactor using state property taxes. Lawmakers cite old-fashioned free market competition, and the failure of previous subsidies to save the mature, well-established reactor industry.

Serious accidents in 1977, 1985, 1998, and 2002 have endangered Davis-Besse’s neighbors. In 2002, the most hair-raising scare was the discovery that corrosion had eaten through more than 6-inches of the carbon steel reactor head. The corrosion had gone undetected for decades. Gouging a whole in the reactor cover the size of a football, the corrosion left only 3⁄8 inch of steel holding back the high-pressure coolant. A break would have caused a massive loss-of-coolant accident, and an out-of-control overheating resulting in catastrophic fuel melting and massive radiation releases.

Repairs took two years and cost $600 million, during which the Department of Justice penalized FirstEnergy over operating and reporting violations. FirstEnergy paid $28 million in fines. Yet the NRC allowed the company to restart in 2004, and then to run the rust bucket for 40 reckless years, even after the company tacked on another $600 million in repairs in 2014.

Reactors Shuttered by Bankruptcy or Accident Risk from Calif. to New Jersey

With combined debt estimated at $3.5 billion and losses mounting daily, CFO Pearson said FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. will file for bankruptcy. Not just Davis-Besse, but the firm’s Perry reactor northwest of Cleveland, and Beaver Valley reactors 1 & 2, northwest of Pittsburg, will also likely be closed.

Elsewhere in nuclear reactor phase outs, California utility regulators decided January 11 not to save Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) from the free market, but to close the company’s two nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon when their licenses expire in 2025. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that PG&E opened the complex in 1985 in the face of massive protests over the risk of disaster posed by extremely close earthquake faults, one only 650 yards away. Even after Fukushima, state and federal regulators shrugged “earthquake schmirthquake,” and forced the public to play Russian roulette with the old jalopy. (A record-breaking 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan in March 2011 caused the world’s worst nuclear power disaster at Fukushima, a triple reactor meltdown that is still a geyser of radioactive gases and gusher radioactive water seven years on.) Unlike the bribe-happy legislatures in New York and Illinois, proponents of nuclear power have been unable to convince California state law makers to fund a bail out of PG&E.

In 2013 Southern Calif. Edison, owners of the San Onofre reactors north of San Diego abruptly decided to close up shop. The troubled reactors 2 and 3 have been churning out high-level radioactive waste since 1983 and 1984 respectively. The hulks ran into trouble when massive repairs and upgrades failed inspections. In May 2013, US Sen. Barbara Boxer said the reactors were “unsafe and posed a danger to the 8 million people living within 50 miles” and called for a criminal investigation into the installation of faulty replacement steam generators.

Other decrepit reactors that have closed or are closing soon including: Fort Calhoun in Nebraska, closed at the end of 2016; Oyster Creek* in New Jersey is set to close in 2019; Pilgrim* in Massachusetts closing in 2019 or sooner; FitzPatrick* near Oswego, NY and FE Ginna in Ontario, NY (which were set to close in 2017, before state legislators agreed to a bail out); Clinton and Quad Cities* reactors in Illinois, which would have shut down in June 2017 except for another state taxpayer bailout. In 2016, two unfinished Bellefonte reactors in northern Alabama were cancelled. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s initial 1970 order for the two units dragged on for decades, costing electric customers $6 billion, before the agency declared it a lost cause.

Minnesota’s single unit Monticello* reactor on the Mississippi River can’t be far behind in this string of closures, especially considering its age and nasty accident record. 

* These reactors are clones of the General Electric “Mark I” designed and built by the same engineers that put together the three earthquake-and-tsunami smashed and melted Fukushima-Daiichi reactors in Japan.