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March 12, 2003


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Regional News | Article published Wednesday, March 12, 2003
Utility’s reactor head is replaced; plant could be shut till summer
Jack Stables, a Portage Township trustee, tells Nuclear Regulatory Commission representatives how impressed he's been with the people at the Davis-Besse plant.
 View pictures of the day


PORT CLINTON - The replacement head for Davis-Besse’s nuclear reactor was being bolted down last night, but FirstEnergy Corp. still appears to have a slim chance of gaining authorization to restart its beleaguered plant before early summer.

The utility continues to lose millions of dollars each month, especially when the weather is harsh and electricity demand is high as it has been the last two months.

FirstEnergy acknowledged yesterday for the first time it lost $20 million in January and $20 million more in February, nearly twice what it normally spends during nonsummer months.

While it spends $20 million to $25 million a month for surplus power during peak summer months, it has assumed that demand will be down and markets will adjust enough to keep such expenses at $10 million to $15 million a month for all other months.

The 150-ton head, bought from a never-finished nuclear plant in Midland, Mich., was put on the reactor Monday night.

It is replacing Davis-Besse’s original, which on March 6, 2002, was found to have a football-sized cavity burned into it over the years by boric acid that had leaked out of the reactor.

The company’s admitted maintenance letdown exposed all but a thin liner of stainless steel and brought northwest Ohio to the brink of what scientists believe could have been a nuclear accident of Three Mile Island proportion.

The replacement head will be locked into place by 60 thick, specially designed steel bolts around the head’s perimeter. The process of tightening each one and checking the tension of each began last night, company officials said.

At yesterday’s monthly oversight meeting at Camp Perry, Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials acknowledged that the placement of the dome-shaped device on the reactor is another symbol of progress in the company’s excruciating effort to get the plant fixed and operating again. Davis-Besse has been idle since a refueling outage began Feb. 16, 2002. Yet without committing themselves to a timetable, NRC officials said the process of mounting the head is just that - symbolism. Dozens of inspections have been scheduled through early May.

The restart timetable could get pushed back further, depending on the result of a week-long pressure test, tentatively planned for mid-April. It is to show whether the bottom of the reactor leaks. But even if the pressure test goes well, FirstEnergy still has two major projects to complete in the reactor containment building:

w Redesigning and rebuilding its emergency containment sump. Engineers feared the sump could clog with debris and fail in the event of a loss-of-coolant accident.

w Refurbishing containment air coolers to help with climate control.

Plus, FirstEnergy is eager for preliminary results of a work-atmosphere report that could be a watershed event in the restart efforts. The report is being written by Dr. Sonja Haber, a nationally known industrial psychologist, based on 90 interviews, numerous records and on-site observations, and a survey completed by 661 of 831 employees.

FirstEnergy officials said they hope it shows the company is doing a better job of encouraging workers to come forward with safety concerns, something the NRC demands before granting restart.

A closed meeting has been scheduled for March 20 for FirstEnergy and the NRC to hear the preliminary results, Jack Grobe, NRC oversight panel chairman, said. He said he was not sure whether any results would be made public prior to the finalization of the report weeks later.

Mr. Grobe agreed that the outcome of Dr. Haber’s analysis is an important piece of evidence but said it will not necessarily make or break the NRC’s decision regarding the work atmosphere issue. "This assessment being done by Dr. Haber is very important, but it’s important to keep it in context," he said.

Even so, the report is so important to Mr. Grobe that he warned FirstEnergy against influencing it. "Credibility on this is very important," he told company officials. "You folks have lost some credibility over the last few years, and so has the NRC."

About 100 people attended the afternoon business session. The evening session for public comment was attended by about 200.

Officials had little to say about a U.S. Department of Labor whistleblower case filed Feb. 18, which skeptics have cited as a possible example of workplace intimidation.

In the complaint, fired engineer Andrew Siemaszko claimed to have evidence that FirstEnergy knew as early as 1998 that Davis-Besse’s reactor head was being corroded by leaking acid. His attorney has said he was fired because he fought management to get that problem fixed, as well as one involving pumps used to circulate coolant water during the plant’s normal operation.

Amy Ryder, Ohio Citizen Action spokesman, got little response when she raised the issue of Mr. Siemaszko’s whistleblower complaint.

"I suggest you let that play out in court," Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy’s nuclear subsidiary, told her.

Mr. Grobe said he didn’t want the NRC panel to talk about the Siemaszko case because it was filed with the Labor Department, not his agency.

Also yesterday, FirstEnergy revealed plans for humidity sensors it is installing around the bottom of the reactor to help check for leaks while the plant is operating. Only 12 such devices have been installed at nuclear plants, in Canada and Europe. Davis-Besse will be the first to get them in the United States, Craig Hengge, a FirstEnergy engineer, said.

The device will show plant operators the moisture content of air near 52 nozzles in the bottom of the reactor via computer. It will compare the air trapped by insulation there to air in other parts of the containment building, he said.

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

More articles on this subject »
Risk analyst questions delay 03/07/2003
Safety panel: Getting details of Davis-Besse woes is critical 03/07/2003
A year after Davis-Besse corrosion found, restart is not near 03/06/2003
Bump shutters Pittsburgh-area plant 02/27/2003
Loading of fuel complete at Besse 02/27/2003

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