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Friday, May 24, 2002

D-B to get replacement reactor head

FirstEnergy hopeful plant can be back in operation by October

Staff writer

CARROLL TOWNSHIP -- Instead of repairing a damaged reactor head at Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, FirstEnergy officials opted Thursday to replace it.

The company bought a never-used reactor head from Consumer's Energy, which was designed to go into a nuclear plant in Midland, Mich., that never saw the light of day.

FirstEnergy officials had been weighing the option, along with repairing corrosion to the Davis-Besse reactor head, since the problem was found in early March.

The plant has been shut down since its routine February refueling outage because of the damage, which consists of a football-sized hole in the reactor head that had been corroded away.

"We've been discussing it with (the NRC) for some time as the contingency plan," said FirstEnergy spokesman Richard Wilkins this morning. "In fact, one NRC guy gave it a recommendation as a better way to do it."

The company estimated Thursday it will spend between $55 to $75 to replace the reactor head with the 17-year-old abandoned one from Midland.

The Midland plant was abandoned in the mid-1980s as it neared completion because of cost overruns and major changes in the nuclear industry.

The price tag cited by FirstEnergy includes all maintenance to the new reactor head, such as removing surface rust on it, as well as dismantling the surrounding equipment at Midland and putting Davis-Besse's equipment on it when it gets to the Carroll Township plant.

Wilkins said the company could restart the plant sometime in the fourth quarter, which is the last three months of the year. But it still has to have the OK from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, the federal oversight agency for the nuclear industry.

And the NRC, which hasn't even received a plan yet from FirstEnergy about the replacement option, isn't commenting on that schedule.

Spokesman Jan Strasma did say, though, that the review process would likely be much smoother than with the repair plan.

"If the reactor vessel head is identical or very similar to the existing head, the review process is pretty straightforward," he said. "We have not seen any formal presentation or documentation, but on the surface it appears to be a feasible project."

The Midland head is a product of Babcock & Wilcox, the same company that designed Davis-Besse's reactor head, and they were both engineered with similar specifications, FirstEnergy officials said in a press release.

Strasma said the NRC's first concern is safety, though, not FirstEnergy's start-up schedule.

Officials from the nuclear operating portion of FirstEnergy have been wearing out the path from Ottawa County to Midland recently, traveling north to run tests on the reactor head.

They had been considering the replacement as an option all along, but a May 7 meeting at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md. on May 7 seemed to turn the tide.

It was during that meeting -- about a repair plan submitted by the Akron-based energy company -- that NRC officials hinted a replacement would have a "clearer path to success" than repair.

Then, on May 9, officials announced at a public meeting in Oak Harbor it had signed a letter of intent to purchase the Midland reactor head.

For the first time, the replacement became a more viable option than the repair.

But there are still a host of issues that have yet to be detailed, such as how to get the new head out of the Midland plant and into Davis-Besse's containment building.

"We know what we have to do, we know what the steps are and we've hired the right people to do those things," Wilkins said.

Those steps include cutting open the containment building at Midland and removing the head, then transporting it -- by rail, barge, truck or some combination -- to the Davis-Besse plant.

Then, a 20-foot by 20-foot hole must be cut into Davis-Besse's containment building to install the head before it is closed up.

The containment structure was decontaminated, too, in early February so workers could go in during the refueling outage, so with some preparation it is ready for the plan.

When an unused reactor head is installed into the Davis-Besse containment building, estimated to be some time in late summer, the old head will be removed and stored on site, Wilkins said.

Then, it will be cut up into pieces and shipped to a low-level waste repository, he said.

Additional work scheduled

Along with the replacement of the reactor head, estimated to cost between $55 million to $75 million, the company will take advantage of the down time and spend another $50 million to $70 million on additional work around the plant.

That work is expected to include replacing components in the feedwater heater and other plant system equipment, as well as installing leak prevention systems in high- and low-pressure condenser equipment.

It will also revise various maintenance and inspection programs during the time the plant is off-line.

The company is expected to pay nearly $80 million in the next several months to replace energy that is not being produced by the Davis-Besse plant.