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January 01, 2003


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Regional News | Article published Wednesday, January 1, 2003
Davis-Besse woes help spur nuke-plant confab


GAITHERSBURG, Md. - Pro-industry lobbyists portray Davis-Besse’s massive rust problem as an anomaly, but federal officials want to know whether it is a harbinger of things to come among the world’s aging fleet of nuclear plants.

Their anxiety has manifested itself in a major three-day symposium that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is putting together in hopes of drawing participants from France, Japan, and Sweden - countries that have invested heavily in nuclear power.

The event is tentatively slated for March 24-26 at the Marriott Gaithersburg Washingtonian, organizer Bill Cullen, an NRC senior materials engineer, said.

On its surface, the conference will be nitty-gritty metallurgy - a hard look at how nuclear plants with pressurized-water reactors, such as Davis-Besse’s, have metal components prone to crack as they age and continue to be fatigued by extreme temperatures and pressure.

Mr. Cullen acknowledged the NRC has a broader purpose for the conference. In its announcement, the agency said that the discovery of cracks and leakage from control rod drive mechanism nozzles in several U.S. and foreign reactors, including Davis-Besse, has "raised this issue to a high level of regulatory concern."

"We have an aging fleet of plants with a design that we may never see again," Mr. Cullen said. Utilities owning them are "going to have to come to grips" with the enormous expense of replacing heads or take other measures to protect the devices, he said.

Davis-Besse’s problem is costing FirstEnergy Corp. in Akron at least $350 million, mostly for replacement power the company is buying while the plant is idle. In Virginia, Dominion Energy announced it is spending $175 million to install new reactor heads at its North Anna and Surrey nuclear plants. Other utilities are contemplating similar projects.

One type of nickel-base alloy commonly found in pressurized-water plants, Alloy 600, has drawn the NRC’s attention for years because it is not as crack-proof and corrosion-resistant as thought at the advent of the nuclear age, he said.

Mr. Cullen said one of his first assignments after joining the NRC in February was to put together an Alloy 600 conference. A month later, the deep rust on Davis-Besse’s reactor head was discovered - the apparent result of unchecked boric acid that had leaked for years and burned through all but a thin liner of the cap. The discovery jolted the NRC so much that it required other nuclear plants to prove they don’t have the same problem.

"This is clearly an issue that has consumed the careers of many people here at the NRC since March 7 or 8 [when it was discovered]," Mr. Cullen said

Similar problems at other plants - such as Duke Energy Corp.’s Oconee Unit 3 plant in South Carolina - contributed to the NRC’s decision to hold the forum, he said.

"While we certainly are including the head issue, it [the conference agenda] is a little larger than that," Mr. Cullen said.

Todd Schneider, FirstEnergy spokesman, acknowledged yesterday Davis-Besse has made the industry rethink its position on reactor-head nozzle cracks.

"Before Davis-Besse, the thinking was that boric acid on the reactor head was acceptable," he said. "The situation at Davis-Besse hopefully will provide some insight to prevent it from happening again."

The NRC had seen hairline cracks in reactor-head nozzles since 1988, but the cracks found at Oconee Unit 3 in early 2001 were the first in a horizontal, circular pattern - far more dangerous than axial, vertical cracks because they can weaken tubes and allow them to pop off like champagne corks. Reactor heads have 69 such nozzles.

If any break apart, the result could be the same as a hole in the reactor head: The containment building, the public’s last line of defense, could be instantly filled with radioactive steam, officials have said.

More articles on this subject »
Reactor study isn’t a surprise to utilities 12/26/2002
Davis-Besse whittles down list of safety issues 12/24/2002
Plant neighbors to get radiation-fighting pills 12/19/2002
Experts: Plant woes hot topic when next NRC chief is named 12/15/2002
NRC chairman to step down in March 12/13/2002

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