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Editorial Editorial

Posted on Mon, Mar. 03, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Try new power in old nuclear plants

The writer is the Akron-area director of Ohio Citizen Action.

We've all heard the old saw, ``When a door closes, a window opens.''

While watching problem after problem unfold at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant over the past year, it's clear that the reactor at this plant has closed a door for FirstEnergy.

Even setting aside FirstEnergy's neglect of basic maintenance and safety procedures at Davis-Besse, the reactor has clearly lived out its useful life.

As engineers understood four decades ago, nuclear reactors would not last forever. After years of intense heat and pressure, they will crack. Recent examples are Dominion's North Anna 2 reactor near Richmond, Va.; Tokyo Electric's Fukushima reactor in Japan; and, of course, Davis-Besse.

While the time has come to put Davis-Besse's reactor to rest, there is an open window for FirstEnergy.

Repowering the plant with another source of fuel may be an opportunity to keep producing electricity at Davis-Besse, even after the reactor has been retired.

Repowering adds a new fuel source to an existing steam cycle in a retired nuclear plant. There is an impressive precedent for repowering:

 Northern States Power, the predecessor of Xcel Energy, built and operated the Pathfinder nuclear plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. Considered the world's first all-nuclear power plant, it operated for a year in 1966, but was closed for technical problems and converted to a fossil fuel-fired facility. Decommissioning at the plant was completed by 1992.

 In 1973, the Fort St. Vrain nuclear plant in Platteville, Colo., went on line as a 330 megawatt, gas-cooled reactor. Faced with ongoing operational and financial troubles, the plant's owner closed the reactor in 1989. A decade later, Xcel Energy repowered the idle station with natural gas, using $60 million in assets from the plant's nuclear station. Fort St. Vrain is operating today as a 720-megawatt plant and plays a critical role in meeting Xcel customers' needs.

 In 1984, the Zimmer nuclear plant near Cincinnati was 99 percent complete, but hopelessly snarled in safety problems. As a result, its owners -- American Electric Power, Dayton Power and Light and Cincinnati Gas and Electric -- repowered the facility with coal.

 Consumers Power invested $4.2 billion in planning and construction of a nuclear power plant in Midland, Mich., between 1973 and 1984. The utility abandoned the project when it was 85 percent complete. The plant has since been repowered, and now operates as a 1,500-megawatt, natural gas cogeneration plant, producing enough electricity to light a city of 1 million people and steam to power the Dow Chemical factory in Midland.

It is in everyone's interest -- stockholders, company management, workers and plant neighbors -- for the Davis-Besse reactor to remain closed permanently, because it cannot operate safely. But why should the components of the plant, which may not be worn out, be retired?

Davis-Besse, a pressurized water reactor, was designed to isolate radioactivity from the electricity-generating turbines. This design makes Davis-Besse a good candidate for repowering. If the turbines are clean, then perhaps they can be reused.

Of course, nobody can say for certain what parts of Davis-Besse can be reused and what the cost to the utility would be. But it would be a disservice to FirstEnergy's stockholders, employees and customers not to explore this promising opportunity thoroughly.

Convening a task force of engineers and financial experts, from both inside and outside the company, to examine the issue could answer all of our repowering ``what-ifs.'' The owners of the Zimmer plant examined the issue for 14 months when they concluded that repowering was the best option.

In the years to come, more and more utilities are going to be faced with similar dilemmas as to what to do with their aging nuclear reactors. FirstEnergy is in a position to get ahead of the game and lead the industry by example of how best to close a nuclear reactor.

A new lid won't cure Davis-Besse's ills, but different fuel could.

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