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7/23/03 2:13:00 PM ET

FirstEnergy delays plant restart goal to late Sept
Reuters, 07.23.03, 2:12 PM ET


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By Leonard Anderson

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - FirstEnergy Corp. (nyse: FE - news - people) will not be ready to ask nuclear regulators to restart its troubled Davis-Besse nuclear power station in Ohio until late September, a company spokesman said Wednesday.

Davis-Besse has missed repeated restart targets since it closed 17 months ago after inspectors discovered that boric acid leaking through cracks in the reactor vessel head had chewed a hole through the 6-inch-thick steel lid.

The company had previously estimated that delays in putting Davis-Besse back in operation would likely cost FirstEnergy more than $400 million, including the cost of buying electricity to replace the plant's 925 megawatts of generating capacity -- power for about 900,000 homes.

Akron, Ohio-based First Energy, which replaced the damaged lid, said in June that it still aimed to restart the plant in August, but a key weeklong test required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission won't begin until the middle of August, according to company spokesman Richard Wilkins.

The test of the operating pressure and temperature in Davis-Besse's atomic reactor and cooling pipes is needed to ensure there are no leaks in the system.

Wilkins said the seven-day test will be followed by a month's worth of additional work. "It will probably be mid- to late September to complete the work and ask the NRC for a restart," Wilkins said.

The NRC has the final say on when Davis-Besse can resume commercial power production, and the agency's restart process may take one to three weeks, said Jan Strasma, an NRC spokesman.

"There remains an extensive amount of work to be done," Strasma said.

FirstEnergy must complete 18 more steps in a 31-item "restart checklist" before the NRC can make a decision on the restart, he added.

The list includes an ongoing investigation of the "safety culture" at Davis-Besse and tests of modified high-pressure pumps that would provide cooling water to the reactor in an emergency.

The NRC's Strasma also said two public meetings are planned to discuss the safety culture issue but no dates have been set. He said the NRC must give two weeks' notice before a public meeting can be held.

"The NRC intends to keep any delay in the restart process as minimal as possible, if in fact the plant is ready to start up," Strasma said.

FirstEnergy said last week that its nuclear power business will get a new boss on Sept. 1, when Gary Leidich, executive vice president of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., moves up to president and chief nuclear officer.

Leidich will replace Robert Saunders, who will retire next Feb. 1. Saunders will work with Leidich on the Davis-Besse restart, the company said.

Copyright 2003, Reuters News Service

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