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May 07, 2003

 



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Regional News | Article published Wednesday, May 7, 2003
Besse’s unlike leaking Texas reactor, say regulators

By
BLADE STAFF WRITER


PORT CLINTON - Davis-Besse was designed differently from a South Texas nuclear plant that recently became the nation’s first to report a small leak in the bottom of its reactor, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission official said at Camp Perry yesterday.

"There’s not a direct correlation at all between South Texas and Davis-Besse," said Jack Grobe, chairman of the NRC’s oversight panel for Davis-Besse.

Despite the subtle differences, though, the NRC left little doubt at its monthly Davis-Besse meeting that it is growing increasingly wary of the potential for more wear-and-tear issues affecting the aging nuclear industry.

The agency has not received an application for a new plant since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The industry is growing older with no modern fleet of plants being built as replacements, despite America’s rising energy needs.

Many of the industry’s metal-fatigue issues have received heightened scrutiny from the NRC the past 14 months in the aftermath of its admitted oversight lapse at Davis-Besse.

The Ottawa County plant, 25 miles east of Toledo, has the dubious distinction of being the site with the most corroded reactor head in U.S. nuclear history. And regulators keep asking themselves if Davis-Besse was an anomaly or a symptom of an emerging problem.

Davis-Besse’s reactor head was 25 years old when the near-hole in it was discovered March 6, 2002. Since then, several plants with aging reactor heads have made or stepped up plans to have new lids installed, to avoid being caught in the same situation as Davis-Besse.

At the St. Lucie plant in Florida, cracks were found recently in welds holding two reactor-head nozzles. Neither leaked reactor coolant, the problem at Davis-Besse.

One crack had worked its way through 40 percent of the weld, making regulators wonder how much longer before a leak would have developed. That complex has notified the NRC of plans to replace lids covering two reactors, officials said.

More cracks were found recently in reactor-head nozzles at the Oconee complex in South Carolina, prompting the operator there to announce plans for three new reactor heads. Reactor heads also are being replaced at nuclear plants in Virginia, the NRC said.

Scientific detective work on the top of Davis-Besse’s reactor was still in progress last summer when regulators began shifting some of their attention to the vessel’s underbelly. Heavy rust stains were found there. FirstEnergy Corp. has attributed at least some of it to residue from its periodic washings of the reactor head.

The utility has said it doesn’t believe the bottom of Davis-Besse’s reactor is leaking, but has acknowledged that it can’t rule out that possibility unless the bottom shows no leaks during a week-long, high-pressure test. That test has been delayed indefinitely as other repairs and modifications for restart are made.

On April 18, the South Texas plant reported the apparent leak of its reactor bottom. It found a couple of small clusters of boron, an additive in the reactor. The largest cluster was described as the equivalent of half an aspirin in size.

The leak is tiny: Tests show the residue might have begun to form as long as four years ago, said Brian Sheron, the NRC’s associate director for project licensing and technical analysis.

The NRC is awaiting results of an investigation into the root cause of that leakage before taking its next step, Mr. Sheron, one of the agency’s senior officials, said.

Also yesterday, the NRC learned FirstEnergy is still likely weeks away from deciding how it will address design problems with some vital safety equipment: Davis-Besse’s pair of high-pressure injection pumps.

The pumps would be used to inject coolant water over the reactor in the event of a nuclear accident. The utility learned the bearings in those pumps are susceptible to malfunctioning if they encounter debris, based on the way the pumps are built.

Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy’s nuclear subsidiary, said a decision to repair or replace those pumps likely won’t occur until results come back from a simulated test. The test is to show the NRC how the pumps could work if their design was modified.

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




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