The writer is the Akron-area director of Ohio Citizen
We've all heard the old saw, ``When a door closes, a window
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
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
• 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
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
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
A new lid won't cure Davis-Besse's ills, but different fuel