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Regional News | Article published Thursday, March 6, 2003
A year after Davis-Besse corrosion found, restart is not near

By
BLADE STAFF WRITER


OAK HARBOR, Ohio - Three hundred sixty-five days have passed and at least $375 million has been spent since a football-sized hole was discovered in the reactor head at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant.

A year ago today, workers removing corrosive boric acid from around a leaking control rod nozzle found rust had eaten through six inches of carbon steel on the reactor head. Only a stainless steel liner, less than a half-inch thick and found buckling and cracking, had prevented a rupture of high pressure steam into the containment building that houses the reactor.

The damage was discovered during a refueling outage that began in mid-February, 2002. The plant, owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., remains shut down today.

The near-rupture was a watershed event for the nuclear industry and has been compared by some to the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

Congressional investigations are under way. Evidence is being gathered for possible criminal charges. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission - the government agency admittedly embarrassed by its oversight breakdown - has ordered permanent inspection changes nationwide.

Financially, the cost has been staggering: at least $375 million to date. FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said $230 million of that total has been spent or budgeted for equipment purchases and work prior to restart, such as a new reactor head.

FirstEnergy continues to lose at least $10 million to $15 million each month purchasing supplemental power to serve its customers while the plant sits idle, Mr. Schneider said. During peak summer usage, he said, the figure rises to $20 million to $25 million a month.

More troubling is that there is no immediate end in sight. The NRC has said that, at its current pace, the minimal inspections needed to authorize plant restart cannot be completed until at least early May.

H. Peter Burg, FirstEnergy’s chairman and chief executive officer, told industry analysts in December that the corporation will not let the plant become a "black hole" for the company.

Ottawa County has a lot at stake in seeing the plant restarted. Davis-Besse means $3.8 million in property-tax revenues for the county and the plant’s 700 employees pay $3.5 million in state and local income-taxes annually, Mr. Schneider said.

In the weeks before the discovery at Davis-Besse, the nuclear industry was riding the crest of optimism. After 23 years of doldrums, it was a cornerstone of White House energy policy. Lobbyists were confident they finally had the votes to overcome the industry’s biggest hurdle: Finding a place to dump spent reactor fuel now being stored in casks on site at Davis-Besse, the Fermi nuclear plant near Monroe, and other facilities nationwide.

When Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was designated by Congress last summer as the burial site, the proposal was immediately signed by President Bush. The industry planned to cash in on that support by beginning the process of relicensing existing plants and introducing legislation to build new ones.

But Davis-Besse’s safety problem has raised questions among scores of people, including leading scientists. For many, the theme has not been whether the technology is safe - but whether those responsible for running the plants are doing so with the public or profits in mind.

Davis-Besse’s unprecedented rust was such a surprise that the NRC readily admits it was not looking for it when the plant was shut down Feb. 16, 2002, for what was supposed to be a normal refueling outage. The primary focus was to see how many of the 69 reactor-head nozzles atop the reactor cap were leaking. Evidence presented in Washington three months earlier indicated that at least one of them probably had a small leak.

Workers checking the containment area on March 5, 2002, were stunned to see one of 69 nozzles - all of which are supposed to be permanently mounted - suddenly shift. When they came back the next day, they removed a thick buildup of corrosive boric acid and found a hole around that leaking nozzle, plus a smaller gap near another nozzle.

FirstEnergy initially downplayed the reactor-head corrosion as something that might be repaired in a few weeks. By June, a far more chilling scenario was confirmed.

Mark T. Kirk, one of the NRC’s senior materials engineers, reported the damage to the stainless-steel liner was such that the lid would have burst and radioactive steam would have formed if the corrosion had gone a mere two more inches laterally. Other NRC officials have recently said the head would have undoubtedly burst sometime during the two-year operating cycle if the plant had been allowed to restart without the problem being fixed.

FirstEnergy now admits the problem was largely a result of a short-sighted profits-over-safety mentality that existed at Davis-Besse throughout the 1990s.

In a report issued Monday by a nuclear watchdog group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, author David Lochbaum claimed the NRC knew Davis-Besse had leaking reactor-head nozzles - a potential harbinger of a major problem - when it set aside an order that had been drafted in November, 2001, to shut down the plant no later than Dec. 31 of that year.

Mr. Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer, said he reached his conclusions after reviewing more than 1,000 pages of transcripts from interviews taken by the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

Mr. Schneider called Mr. Lochbaum’s report "old news." With the nuclear fuel now loaded, the utility next plans to install the new reactor head it purchased from a never-finished Midland, Mich., plant.

"The past has been well-documented," Mr. Schneider said. "We’re certainly not proud of it. But now, we’re focused on restarting the plant."

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse



More articles on this subject »
Bump shutters Pittsburgh-area plant 02/27/2003
Loading of fuel complete at Besse 02/27/2003
Repairs key to engineer’s case 02/26/2003
NRC rates corrosion 1 of worst violations 02/26/2003
NRC holds to inspection of all Besse-type reactor heads 02/25/2003

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