| Article published Thursday, March 6, 2003|
A year after Davis-Besse corrosion found, restart is not
By TOM HENRY
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
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.
was a watershed event for the nuclear industry and has been compared
by some to the Three Mile Island accident in
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
admits the problem was largely a result of a short-sighted
profits-over-safety mentality that existed at Davis-Besse throughout
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.
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.
past has been well-documented," Mr. Schneider said. "We’re certainly
not proud of it. But now, we’re focused on restarting the
For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to
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