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April 04, 2002


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Regional News | Article published Thursday, April 4, 2002
FirstEnergy looks at 3rd Davis-Besse option
Utility studies buying reactor head at unused Michigan nuclear facility


Vapor rises from the heat-recovery steam generators in the portion of the scuttled nuclear power facility at Midland, Mich., that the utility company converted to a natural gas-fired plant.

OAK HARBOR, Ohio - FirstEnergy Corp. yesterday confirmed it is exploring a third option to restart its Davis-Besse nuclear plant: buying one of the reactor heads that were installed about 20 years ago, but never used, at a scuttled nuclear complex in Midland, Mich.

Known as Midland 1 and Midland 2, the dual-reactor complex was abandoned as a nuclear facility July 16, 1984, before it was completed because of a variety of construction and financing issues. Part of it later was converted to a natural gas plant.

The reactor heads were installed several years before Consumers Power, now known as Consumers Energy, scrapped the project.

The utility, in Jackson, Mich., has its purchasing department involved in negotiations with FirstEnergy and is interested in working out a deal, Charles MacInnis, Consumers public relations director, said.

Davis-Besse’s corroded reactor head has been described as the worst degradation of its kind ever at a U.S. nuclear plant.

Boric acid from the reactor is believed to have dribbled out for years from at least two cracked nozzles.

In one spot, the acid burned through six inches of steel and left only three-eighths of an inch of warped metal.

On Wednesday, FirstEnergy is to make a formal pitch - subject to NRC approval - for repairing the original reactor head. That meeting is to be at the NRC’s headquarters in Rockville, Md.

Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said an immediate repair continues to be the utility’s preference.

"We’re still pretty much focused on that," he said. "We still don’t see anything that says this is not a feasible thing to do."

Its only other option - other than buying from a dormant plant such as Midland - is to keep Davis-Besse shut down until 2004, when a new reactor head now under construction is due to be delivered.

Mr. MacInnis said there have "been discussions about a possible price" for one of Consumer Energy’s reactor heads but would not reveal a figure or dollar range. Neither would Mr. Wilkins.

But Mr. Wilkins confirmed for the first time that FirstEnergy would spend about $20 million for a new reactor head if it continues to wait for the one under construction. Prior estimates came from the nuclear industry’s chief lobbying group, the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute.

FirstEnergy also has said it will spend up to $10 million to repair Davis-Besse’s damaged reactor head. The costs cannot be passed along to ratepayers.

Nuclear plants have purchased spare parts from each other numerous times over the years.

But those parts are normally smaller items, such as transformers, pumps, and valves. No utility has ever had a reactor head - a huge, 17-foot-wide structure made of steel - brought in from another plant and installed at theirs, Jan Strasma, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman, said.

He didn’t rule out the possibility of that happening between Davis-Besse and the Midland facility. "Basically, [FirstEnergy] would have to give us a safety justification," he said.

FirstEnergy is interested enough that it sent an employee up to Midland a couple of weeks ago to get measurements. It was the first time in years that Consumers allowed anyone into that plant’s containment structures, Mr. MacInnis said.

FirstEnergy believes either one of the Midland reactor heads would fit - albeit with a few design modifications.

Davis-Besse and the Midland complex both have pressurized water reactors built by Babcock & Wilcox, now Framatome. That makes them "of a similar pedigree," but there would have to be some modifications specific to Davis-Besse, Mr. MacInnis said.

Some of those engineering issues were circulated in a recent Consumers memo, Mr. MacInnis said. He said they were "characterized as formidable, but I did not see the word ‘impossible’ in there."

The task, if ever presented to and approved by the NRC, would take months. Containment structures at both Midland and Davis-Besse would have to be cut open to get a reactor heads out, the Midland one shipped to Davis-Besse, then installed, the two utility spokesmen said.

"It’s not a tremendously simple thing to do," Mr. MacInnis said.

Mary Sinclair, an anti-nuclear activist profiled on 60 Minutes for spearheading opposition to the Midland nuclear project, said she fears national ramifications for the public if FirstEnergy and other nuclear plants are allowed to swap out damaged reactor heads.

"That’s the blind spot of the utilities, that they’ve always failed to understand the enormous corrosion effect," she said from her house in Midland. "They don’t really want to believe it’s as acute of a problem as it is."

The NRC is to announce its inspection team’s findings regarding Davis-Besse at a public hearing at 9 a.m. tomorrow at Oak Harbor High School.

Related articles »
Kaptur’s Davis-Besse remarks incense Ottawa officials 04/03/2002
Davis-Besse designed with safety in mind 04/02/2002
Kaptur: Shut down Davis-Besse 03/29/2002
6 FirstEnergy execs sell stock for $3 million 03/29/2002
Regulators issue acid-damage alert 03/20/2002
More damage found on Davis-Besse reactor 03/19/2002
A scare at Davis-Besse 03/14/2002
Boric acid leak eats 6-inch hole in cap of Davis-Besse reactor 03/12/2002
Davis-Besse, Fermi II pass safety evaluations 03/07/2002
No leaks found in Davis-Besse’s cracked nozzles 03/06/2002

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