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Local Companies | Article published May 24, 2002
$55M-$75M PURCHASE
Davis-Besse will replace reactor head
Plan to use Midland part goes to NRC for review
THE CHANGE:
  • Is expected to cost $55 million to $75 million to purchase and install the unused head before the end of the year, according to a FirstEnergy statement.
  • Involves a part built 20 years ago for the Midland 2 nuclear plant that was never finished.
  • Means FirstEnergy formally notified the NRC to stop reviewing proposed repairs to the existing head.

  • By TOM HENRY
    BLADE STAFF WRITER


    OAK HARBOR, Ohio - FirstEnergy Corp. yesterday announced it has abandoned plans to repair the damaged reactor head at its Davis-Besse nuclear plant here and instead has purchased an unused reactor head from a Michigan plant to replace it.

    The replacement head, built 20 years ago for Consumer Energy's Midland 2 nuclear plant that was never finished, will represent about half of the $105 million to $145 million investment FirstEnergy plans to make at Davis-Besse by the end of the year in an attempt to get the Ottawa County plant running again.

    The Akron-based utility expects to lose $20 million a month buying supplemental power this summer to replace that which would have been generated by Davis-Besse, which has been idle since a normal refueling shutdown Feb. 16.

    On March 6, the company revealed to federal officials that it had found extensive damage to the reactor head, one of the most important safety devices of a nuclear plant.

    Lew W. Myers, FirstEnergy's new chief operating officer, confirmed the utility has set off on a new path. In a prepared statement, Mr. Myers said the replacement option "is our primary focus now."

    FirstEnergy formally notified Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials yesterday that they can stop reviewing the company's proposal to repair Davis-Besse's original reactor head.

    The decision to focus on the Midland head was made after NRC officials expressed doubts about FirstEnergy's proposal to weld plates over deep cavities in the reactor head, a repair effort in which estimated costs had spiraled to about $25 million.

    Neither FirstEnergy nor Consumers would divulge the sale price for the reactor head, one of two which Consumers' predecessor, Consumers Power, had at its unfinished complex in Midland, Mich. The reactor head from the Midland 1 plant was sacrificed years ago for testing.

    But FirstEnergy issued a statement saying that it expects to spend $55 million to $75 million to acquire the Midland 2 reactor head and get it installed at Davis-Besse by the end of the year.

    That enormous project will include tearing open the Midland 2 nuclear plant's containment building to get that reactor head out, then transporting the 150-ton steel device to Davis-Besse by rail, barge, or truck. The exact mode of transportation has not been determined, Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said.

    Additional engineering studies are included in the cost estimate, as are labor and modifications that will be made to Davis-Besse to protect the public from radiation exposure. Among other things, Davis-Besse's radioactive containment building will have to be cut open in order to get the reactor head inside it, officials have said.

    FirstEnergy also said it plans to spend another $50 million to $70 million to catch up and get ahead on other maintenance issues while the plant continues to remain idle for an extended period. Those projects include replacement of components in the feed-water heater and other plant system equipment, installing leak-prevention systems in high and low-pressure condenser equipment, and revising various maintenance and inspection programs, officials said.

    Most work will be budgeted as capital improvements, which will give the company the ability to spread costs over a number of years - possibly a decade or longer, Mr. Wilkins said.

    Midland is about 150 miles north of Toledo, in the cradle of Michigan's Thumb region. Consumers Power stopped construction of a twin-reactor nuclear complex there in 1984 - just short of completion - due to numerous cost overruns and technical issues.

    Davis-Besse is along the Lake Erie shoreline, 25 miles east of Toledo.

    If FirstEnergy's plan is approved by the NRC, the utility would become the first in the nation to swap out reactor heads at an in-service nuclear plant - a scenario that some industry officials, as of only a few weeks ago, thought could be looming around the corner for many of the nation's other 102 nuclear plants as they get older and face similar wear-and-tear issues.

    FirstEnergy officials and federal regulators have had two extensive meetings in recent weeks at the NRC's headquarters in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md. about the company's repair effort.

    At the conclusion of the last one, Bill Bateman, chief of the materials and chemical engineering branch of the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, tipped off the company by saying he believed it would have a "clearer path to success" if it chose to replace the head instead of repair it.

    "We told them the review process would be simpler," Jan Strasma, a NRC spokesman, said.

    He said the NRC review could be a "fairly straightforward process" if ultrasonic tests, measurements, and other calculations prove FirstEnergy would be swapping out similar reactor heads.

    That's too early to know until more studies are done, Mr. Strasma said. And even though both Davis-Besse and Midland 2 were designed by the former Babcock & Wilcox company, now part of France-based Framatome ANP, subtle differences can be found from plant to plant.

    Officials also will have to determine if the aging process has in any way affected the steel, he said.

    "One of the factors that will have to be considered is the storage condition and what effect, if any, that would have," Mr. Strasma said.

    He declined to say whether he believed the NRC could accommodate the utility's timetable. "Basically, we don't comment on schedules," he said.

    Some high-profile figures have expressed displeasure about using the Midland reactor head.

    U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) has said nothing short of a new reactor head should be authorized. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) has gone even farther by saying Davis-Besse should not be allowed to resume operation, given the lack of oversight since a near-accident in 1985.

    But yesterday, a former nuclear engineer in Washington who has been a thorn in the side to the nuclear industry for years said the Midland reactor head could be a technically viable solution.

    "It's a better fix than the patch," David Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. He said he would prefer seeing FirstEnergy wait until 2004 to receive the new reactor head it ordered from Framatome, but can understand the utility's desire to do the next best thing.

    He said he believes FirstEnergy has learned an expensive lesson and that he would "be shocked" if it ever allowed such inspection lapses to occur again.

    Davis-Besse has 15 years left on its original 40-year operating license and plans to apply for an extension of up to 20 years later this decade.

    The utility wants to get at least 10 years of service out of the Midland reactor head, then possibly replace it with the one that's in the process of being made by Framatome, Mr. Wilkins said.


    More articles on this subject »
    Davis-Besse is focus of U.S. criminal investigation 05/23/2002
    FirstEnergy to join anti-outage alliance 05/23/2002
    FirstEnergy says plant could restart by year’s end 05/22/2002
    Plant’s operator, NRC face scrutiny 05/17/2002
    Plan seeks to keep N-plant security 05/11/2002

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