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  Friday, October 4, 2002


Converting D-B to gas or coal is not the answer

Our view

It probably would be easier to simply shut Davis-Besse down than try to convert it to another fuel source.


Ohio Citizen Action this week came out with an idea for the future of the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station.

The activist group has been highly critical of Davis-Besse, especially over the past few months as the nuclear plant and its owner, FirstEnergy, have grappled with unprecedented corrosion that nearly ate through the plant's reactor head.

It's an extremely serious situation that has attracted the attention of multiple investigations -- of the operation of the plant, of the corporate oversight of the plant operators and of the federal agency charged with making sure the plant is operated safely.

In a nutshell, Citizen Action says, hey, if the nuclear side of the plant isn't going right, just turn Davis-Besse into a coal- or gas-fired plant. We hope that Citizen Action understands the complexity of that idea, but the group certainly made it sound simple in its announcement this week.

The problem is that it's far from simple. In fact, it probably would be easier to simply shut Davis-Besse down and build a brand new plant fueled by some other source. We suspect that's really what Citizen Action wants.

We, too, have been critical of Davis-Besse's operators and FirstEnergy as a result of the corrosion problem. A football-sized chunk of carbon steel wasted away under an assault by boric acid that leaked from the reactor vessel. Only a thin layer of stainless steel kept highly radioactive water from pouring out of the core, possibly leading to a much more serious accident. Subsequent investigation showed the stainless steel may have been giving way to the intense heat and pressure in the vessel.

We may never know just how close we came to a major accident at Davis-Besse, but we do know that the plant's operators were more concerned about production than safety, and we know that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors weren't paying close attention. We know that because FirstEnergy and the NRC have acknowledged their shortcomings.

Davis-Besse and FirstEnergy has been working to put its house back in order, and it must continue to do so before the plant is allowed to go back into operation. The NRC must be more vigilant, and it must not allow Davis-Besse to restart until it is assured that FirstEnergy can competently operate a nuclear plant.

But converting a nuclear plant to another fuel source isn't the answer. It would be quicker and probably less expensive simply to build new. The decontamination of the plant would take years, and that would have to happen before coal- or gas-fired boilers could be installed. In the meantime, those who depend on Davis-Besse -- and FirstEnergy -- for electricity wouldn't have that power source.

Eventually, Davis-Besse will have to be shut down and decommissioned. If the NRC doesn't like the answers it gets from FirstEnergy, it could come sooner rather than later. But if it's later, FirstEnergy will be able to plan for the loss of Davis-Besse's power. Converting the plant shouldn't be in the plans now.

Originally published Friday, October 4, 2002

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