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Ohio News

Activists push converting Davis-Besse to other fuel

10/01/02

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

The damaged Davis-Besse nuclear plant would be safer and would better serve its neighbors and stockholders by converting from atomic power to coal- or gas-fired methods of making electricity, a statewide activist group says.

Ohio Citizen Action yesterday launched a public campaign to persuade Davis-Besse's owner, FirstEnergy Corp., to study the idea of "repowering" the Toledo-area plant, which has been idled since workers fixing cracks in the reactor's lid in March discovered a large rust hole.

A handful of other nuclear plants - including the nearly finished Zimmer power station near Cincinnati - have made the switchover.

But within hours of learning of the proposal, FirstEnergy dismissed it as nonsensical and an ill-timed publicity stunt.

"This suggestion does not have merit," either financially or in terms of engineering, spokeswoman Ellen Raines said.

"If Ohio Citizen Action knew anything about our business, they'd recognize that.

"Davis-Besse was engineered and built as a nuclear plant and has been operated as a nuclear plant," she said. "We are focused on getting Davis-Besse repaired and earning the approval to get it restarted. That's the best path."

In a letter yesterday, Citizen Action asked FirstEnergy Chief Executive Peter Burg to form a task force of engineers and financial analysts to study a repowering of the 25-year-old plant.

The lid cracks - and newly discovered fissures in the lid's stainless-steel liner - are just the first of a range of age-related problems that Davis-Besse and other plants in the nation's nuclear fleet can expect, said Amy Ryder, director of Citizen Action's Cleveland office. Non-nuclear methods, while not pollution-free, are "far safer means of generating electricity."

The cost of such a switch, as well as the technological hurdles, could be formidable, she acknowledged. But Ryder said shareholders and customers already are seeing the company spend a huge sum - FirstEnergy's own estimate is $281 million or more by year's end - on repairs and replacement power, with no guarantee if or when federal regulators will allow the reactor to restart.

Unlike other consumer and environmental groups that have called for Davis-Besse's permanent shutdown, Ryder said, Citizen Action recognizes FirstEnergy's need to recoup its long-term investment and to maintain its generating capacity.

The 925 megawatts of power that Davis-Besse makes can't be replaced with fuel cells and windmills, Ryder said. That leaves fossil fuels, although a coal-powered plant would have to meet strict new clean-air laws.

Ryder cited four plants that were intended to use nuclear power but that have successfully switched to burning either coal or gas to make electricity. Two of the plants - Fort St. Vrain near Denver and Pathfinder in Sioux Falls, S.D. - actually operated for a time as commercial nuclear reactors.

The other two - southern Ohio's Zimmer plant and the Midland facility near Saginaw, Mich. - were converted to fossil fuels before ever making nuclear-fired power. The 1,300-megawatt Zimmer plant cost $1.5 billion to switch to coal, a project finished about 10 years ago.

At Fort St. Vrain, the medium-sized experimental reactor struggled for a decade to operate using helium gas, instead of the normal water, to cool its nuclear fuel core. Concerns about the future availability of its special fuel, as well as technical and money problems, prompted the Public Service Co. of Colorado to announce its permanent shutdown in 1989.

Four years later, the company began efforts to convert the plant to gas-fired generation. Its reactor was dismantled and removed.

Three gas-fired jet turbines turn new electric generators. The jets' hot exhaust converts water to steam to drive the original generator, which was once spun by nuclear-made steam.

The six-year conversion, completed last June, cost $283 million. "It was extremely economical" because the nuclear plant's $61 million generator was already paid for, said Mark Stutz, a spokesman for current owner Xcel Energy.

Davis-Besse makes about three times the power of the Denver-area plant before its conversion.

Converting it might not be financially feasible, said James Halloran, analyst with National City's Private Investment Advisers. Besides, FirstEnergy already has made a big investment in the plant's nuclear capability, and Wall Street does not appear to be worried about spending on Davis-Besse so far.

Analysts aren't likely to get anxious about spending unless the plant stays down until next spring, he said. FirstEnergy has set a Dec. 7 restart date, but many analysts don't believe it's realistic.

Citizen Action plans to deluge the company with letters from consumers and to talk up the switchover idea with FirstEnergy's major investors.

"They act like they are trying to contribute to a solution. But they are just adding to the controversy," said Ralph DiNicola, FirstEnergy's public relations director. "It gives them an opportunity to fund-raise."

Ryder countered: "Don't underestimate the power of public pressure. This is absolutely an idea worth pursuing. If they are not examining it as an option, they're doing a disservice to their employees and the citizens of Ohio."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com,216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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