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NRC tests may delay reopening of plant

02/25/03

Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington- Nuclear regulators say the damaged Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Toledo might not reopen until May or later.

That would pose a new setback to FirstEnergy Corp., which is spending $10 million to $12 million a month on replacement electricity for its customers. Davis-Besse has been closed since last February, when it shut down for a government-requested inspection that turned up an unprecedented corrosion hole in the reactor's thick steel lid. The hole was created by leaking, unchecked boric acid.

"There is a lot of inspection activity taking place. We have inspections that are laid out through this April and May, matter of fact," said Bill Dean, co-chairman of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel that must give approval before the plant can restart. Approval, Dean said, won't come until all the inspections are complete.

One inspection, for leaks at the bottom of the reactor, won't be done until mid- to late March, Dean said. And inspections to make sure the plant's "safety culture" has improved - an awareness by Davis-Besse management and staff that the past sloth is unacceptable and harmful - will continue through May, Dean said.

"So that's our current schedule. They continue to change their schedule as things occur," he said of FirstEnergy. "This is typical behavior for a plant during an extended shutdown. As time goes on, either they find additional things or it takes them longer to fix something" already identified as needing repair.

First Energy spokesman Todd Schneider acknowledged in a telephone interview that "the NRC ultimately decides when we're going to restart."

"But we think we're going to have everything ready for restart in April," Schneider said.

But Brian Sheron, NRC associate director of project licensing, said, "The bottom line is, we're not working for the licensee's schedule. The licensee may be ready to start up long before the agency is willing to say they've corrected all the deficiencies which led to this and we have reasonable assurance that they can start up and operate the plant safely. Those are two different dates."

The NRC officials made their comments yesterday while talking to reporters in Rockville, Md., after a public hearing on a new inspection program announced on Feb. 11. The program requires not only visual inspections for cracks or damage to reactor lids but also tests using ultrasound, eddy current or dye penetrant to check the nozzles that pass through the lids. The program covers Davis-Besse and the 68 other pressurized-water reactors throughout the United States.

Nozzles allow special rods that control the nuclear reaction to pass through the lid.

Until the Davis-Besse hole was discovered, the NRC did not consider boric-acid leaks from cracked nozzles to be dangerous because it thought the 605-degree heat from the reactor would turn the wet acid into harmless dry power rather than eat through steel.

The new program requires plants with the oldest lids to conduct the tests every time they close for refueling - generally every two years - if they have been operating at higher temperatures and generating electricity for many years. Plants with less extreme operating records must conduct instrument-aided inspections at least every other refueling shutdown.

But plants with new lids have to do it only once during the next five years - and subsequently once every fourth refueling shutdown or every seven years.

Sheron said he expects few plants will ultimately have to test every two years because many are purchasing new reactor lids.

Asked if lid replacement wasn't the agency's real objective, he said, "I can't sit here and say that I've made the requirement so onerous that this is the only way out. I'm just saying that's the reality of it - at some point . . . industry has to do the cost-benefit [analysis] and say it is cheaper to replace the vessel head and move into that low category and not have to do these onerous inspections."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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