PORT CLINTON, Ohio — The debate over a nuclear plant where small cracks were discovered in a concrete shell is revealing another split between two Democrats who are veteran members of Congress and opponents in the March 6 primary.
It's one of the first noticeable divides to surface in the race since Ohio's new congressional map lumped Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich into the same northern Ohio district that stretches from Cleveland to Toledo.
Kucinich, who's long been a critic of nuclear power, is calling for shutting down the Davis-Besse nuclear plant if major repairs aren't made.
Kaptur thinks the plant along Lake Erie needs to be closely monitored, but says closing it would be devastating to the area's economy and send electricity rates soaring.
"Decisions affecting the plant and its safe operation must be based on evidence, not emotion," she told federal regulators at a meeting two weeks ago.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the plant to begin producing electricity again in early December, about two months after the first cracks were found, saying tests have not given inspectors any reason to keep the plant shut down.
The cracks are in an outer concrete wall that's designed to protect the reactor from anything that might hit it from outside, such as storm debris or an airplane. The commission signed off on restarting the reactor following several tests and after its owner, FirstEnergy Corp., assured it that the cracks don't pose a threat and did not need repairing prior to the resuming operations.
Regulators have given Akron-based FirstEnergy until the end of February to find out what caused the cracks.
Some local officials have accused Kucinich of trying to politicize the issue. But he said on Thursday that his concerns have nothing to do with politics or the campaign.
"My track record is well established," he said. "There's too much at stake here."
Both Kucinich and Kaptur have been highly critical of the plant's operator and regulators in the past. Kaptur suggested Davis-Besse should be shut down, and Kucinich asked that its operating license be pulled about 10 years ago when an acid leak resulted in the most extensive corrosion found at a U.S. nuclear reactor.
Kaptur said two weeks ago that she now has more confidence in the federal regulators who inspect the plant, and that there shouldn't be a rush to judgment on its future. She also pointed out that the plant is one of the largest employers in Ottawa County, which is just east of Toledo.
"Any realistic appraisal will note the importance of Davis-Besse to the local economy," she said at the NRC meeting attended by Davis-Besse workers and anti-nuclear activists. "It employs approximately 800 people and contributes hundreds of related jobs."
At full power, the plant makes enough electricity for around 750,000 customers, primarily in Ohio. The company's electric system has 4.5 million customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Kucinich said he didn't want to characterize Kaptur's statement, calling her a good friend. He agreed that the jobs are important, but also said that the workers' "lives are important as well."
"This is about the safety of millions of people and our drinking water," he said.
Steve Fought, a spokesman for Kaptur, said Kucinich made up his mind that the plant's license should be revoked before the cracks were discovered.
Kucinich attended an anti-nuclear rally in Toledo in October, telling the crowd that he spoke at a similar rally outside Davis-Besse in 1979. "We have seen from that moment on a series on incidents at Davis-Besse that should give everyone pause about relicensing this particular facility," he said then.
More recently, he has accused FirstEnergy of downplaying the scope of the cracks and waiting too long to tell the public about where they were found.
Steven Arndt, a Republican who is president of the Ottawa County commissioners, said Kucinich's dire warnings have created false impressions about the plant's ability to operate safely.
"I don't like to see this issue being used in a political nature," he said. "It's such a sensitive issue."