Q&A
on repowering Davis-Besse

September 30, 2002

Given FirstEnergy's current predicament, repowering Davis-Besse as a gas-fired or coal-fired plant is an obvious option to examine. The company should promptly convene a task force of engineering and financial specialists from inside and outside the company to do this study. So far, FirstEnergy has ignored the repowering option in their headlong dash to restart the aging reactor by December 7.

Q: Why should repowering be an option?

A: Commercial nuclear reactors that came on line in the 1960's and 1970's are beginning to reach the end of their useful lives. This is why there are now frequent reports of cracking: at Dominion's North Anna 2 reactor near Richmond Virginia; at Tokyo Electric's Fukushima reactor in Japan; and of course First Energy's Davis-Besse near Port Clinton, Ohio.

This is no surprise. Nothing lasts forever, and engineers correctly predicted that reactors operating with intense heat and pressure wouldn't last more than 30 or 40 years. Even if you put aside the other factors at play with Davis-Besse -- other equipment problems, management mistakes and cover-ups, etc. -- you still have an old reactor that is starting to give out.

The turbines, however, may not be worn out; nor the administrative and storage buildings, cooling towers, water intake systems, switchyards, or transmission lines. From the utility's point of view, it would be good to use them as long as possible and maintain electricity production at the facility. They can accomplish this by 'repowering': retiring the reactor, and replacing it with a different method of boiling water -- gas-fired or coal-fired. It is also in everyone's interests -- utility management, stockholders, employees, and neighbors -- that a component of the plant, in this case the reactor, which can no longer be operated safely be retired. Repowering also has financial advantages for the utility in that may avoid the large immediate write-offs required by a full decommissioning of the plant.

Q: What makes you think repowering would work?

A: The only way for anyone to evaluate repowering Davis-Besse is to conduct a careful engineering and financial study of the Davis-Besse plant.

There is precedent for repowering, however:

  • The Pathfinder plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was built and operated by Northern States Power Company, based in Minneapolis, Minn. It operated as a nuclear unit in the 1960s, before its nuclear systems were placed in protective storage and its steam cycle converted to a fossil-fired plant. The plant's nuclear components ultimately were decommissioned between 1990 and 1992.
  • In 1973, the federal government began operating the 330 MW Fort St. Vrain station in Platteville, Colorado to demonstrate gas-cooled reactor technology. By 1979, ownership of the plant had transferred to Public Service Company of Colorado. The utility struggled for years with operations, maintenance, and financial problems before it shut down the unique reactor in 1989. A decade later, the advance of gas-turbine technology, coupled with market incentives through industry deregulation, drove the utility to repower the idle station, coupling three gas turbine/heat-recovery steam generator trains to the existing steam-turbine/generator. The repowering project was completed in 2001 and the plant is operating today.
  • The Zimmer nuclear plant on the Ohio River near Cincinnati was "99% complete" in 1984, but it was hopelessly snarled in safety problems. Its owners – American Electric Power, Dayton Power and Light, and Cincinnati Gas and Electric – announced that they would repower it as a coal plant. Repowering to coal had never been done anywhere, but the owners completed the job, and it is operating today.
  • Consumers Power hand invested $4.2 billion in planning and construction of a nuclear power plant in Midland, Michigan, between 1973 and 1984, when it gave up on the project. It has since been repowered as a natural gas cogeneration plant, producing enough electricity to light a city of 1 million, and steam to power the Dow Chemical factory in Midland.

Q: Are there examples of repowering a partially constructed or operating fossil fuel plant into a nuclear plant?

A: No.

Q: Since Davis-Besse has been operated as a nuclear plant for so long, isn’t it contaminated and therefore impossible to use in any other way?

Only an inspection can determine conclusively which parts of Davis-Besse are contaminated.

The design of some nuclear plants -- FirstEnergy’s Perry I boiling water reactor for example – does not limit the contamination to the reactor and the water in the inner loop. Such plants, by design, cannot be repowered.

Davis-Besse, however, is a pressurized water reactor. It was designed to keep the electricity-generating turbines isolated from the radioactivity produced in the reactor and circulating in the water in the inner loop. If this turns out to be the case, as it was with Ft. St. Vrains, the turbines can be reused.

Q: Isn’t it dangerous to have the spent nuclear fuel sitting next to a fossil fuel plant, given the possibility of an explosion?

A: Yes. Any study of repowering should examine this problem and determine whether the spent fuel should be moved further away on FirstEnergy’s 954-acre property and given a stronger structure.

Q: Hasn’t Citizen Action said all along that coal plants are dirty and a menace to public health? Aren’t you supposed to be an environmental group?

A: Yes. As an environmental group, we are bitterly critical of the refusal by some utilities to modernize their old coal plants and reduce emissions. And, of course, if FirstEnergy tried to build a new old-fashioned coal plant at Davis-Besse, it would be violating the federal Clean Air Act.

Among the options worth considering for Davis-Besse, however, is coal-gasification, which the U.S. Department of Energy calls 'the next generation of coal-based energy production.' (In fact, until the 1940's almost all fuel gas distributed for U.S. residential or commercial use was produced by the gasification of coal or coke. As low-cost natural gas became available, it displaced gasified coal.) Coal gasification power plants, some of which are now operating in the United States and elsewhere, do not burn coal directly. Instead coal, steam, and oxygen react under high temperatures and pressures to break apart the chemical bonds in the coal molecules. Proponents argue that in this state, pollutants are separated from the gaseous stream and removed, largely eliminating sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. The primary product, fuel-grade coal-derived gas, 'rivals natural gas in environmental quality,' according to the U.S. Department of Eenrgy.

Two operating coal gasification plants are the Polk plant, operated by Tampa Electric Company plant in Lakeland, Florida, and the Wabash River plant, operated by Public Service of Indiana in Terra Haute, Indiana. The Wabash River plant was repowered from coal.

Whether coal-gasification makes sense for Davis-Besse, again, requires careful study. Can the environmental claims be substantiated? Is there a problem with emergency releases of pollutants from the plant? Are there problems with other pollutants, such as mercury, that enthusiasts haven’t mentioned? Are the costs, both for initial construction and ongoing operation, competitive with natural gas? And so on.

Q: Does this mean Ohio Citizen Action is backing off its demand that Davis-Besse be kept shut down?

A: No. It is in the interests of our members and other neighbors of Davis-Besse that the aging nuclear reactor not be restarted. One way to do that is to keep the plant idled and decommission the whole thing. Another way could be to retire the reactor and repower the turbines.

Q: Who wins and who loses from repowering?

A: It may be in everyone's interest. Neighbors of Davis-Besse (for a nuclear plant, that means North Americans) could be safer. Employees of Davis-Besse could keep their jobs. FirstEnergy executives could be seen as finally 'getting ahead of the issue' and solving a difficult problem. FirstEnergy stockholders and the financial community could have some liability removed from the books and some confidence in the stability of the company.

(The nuclear power establishment has its own reason to favor a study of repowering. The relentless stream of bad news out of Port Clinton cannot be helping their push for a new round of nuclear power plant construction. High on their to-do list should be "making Davis-Besse go away".)

Q: Isn’t this something for FirstEnergy to figure out?

A: Ohio consumers have every right to speak out on this fiasco. We’re the people who paid for Davis-Besse.

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