05/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Losing Toledo Again?

The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Toledo, Ohio, became infamous in 2002 when a corrosive leak in the reactor vessel almost led to what could have been a catastrophic radiation release. FirstEnergy, the company that runs Davis-Besse, had to pay an enormous $28 million fine for attempting to cover up the risk. And now Davis-Besse is back in the news -- this time because of cracks were discovered in the nozzles of the reactor head. But this time, FirstEnergy proudly said, "Yes, we told the NRC immediately."

So this episode demonstrates an increased safety culture and attitude of responsibility on the part of FirstEnergy, which is a very good thing. But it also reveals an uglier and more disturbing truth. America's nuclear power plants are aging and, after fifty years of commercial experience, what happens inside these behemoths is still, fundamentally, an unknown.

FirstEnergy admits that when it bought this reactor head (from an unfinished plant in Michigan), it did not expect to have any problems. Nevertheless, in 2002, it had ordered a new reactor head -- which won't be ready until 2014 at the earliest.

So what we have is a vital part that the reactor cannot operate without, that potentially has enormous safety risks, that can unexpectedly break down in unpredictable ways, and that (apparently) takes years to get a replacement for.

Twelve years.

The risk this time appears to be less that we might lose Toledo in a radioactive cloud and more that we'll have to turn off the city's lights because if the defective reactor head can't be nursed back to health (with its replacement still four years off). But either way you have to wonder why we would want to make our future electricity supply so dependent on a highly unreliable, brittle, and dangerous technology that's operated by an industry whose overall record of getting it right is abysmal.