FirstEnergy Corp. has a better-than-even chance of being able to
repair the acid-damaged reactor vessel head at its Davis-Besse
nuclear power plant and get the plant safely restarted, a prominent
nuclear industry critic said yesterday.
Even so, David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who now works for the
Union of Concerned Scientists, said there is no guarantee that the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission will approve repairing the two
acid-created cavities found in the massive, 150-ton steel structure
instead of replacing it entirely.
``It's never been done before,'' Lochbaum said. ``I'd say it's
better than 50-50 that they'll be able to patch it. I don't think
it's a given that they'll be able to do it.''
Lochbaum sat alongside NRC officials at Wednesday's public
meeting about Davis-Besse in NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md.,
where he presented a paper, ``Stainless Steel Clad: The Dutchboy's
Finger in the Davis-Besse Dike,'' that criticized FirstEnergy and
regulators about power plant safety.
Lochbaum's comments followed an announcement Thursday by a
coalition of Ohio environmental groups who called upon FirstEnergy
to do additional costly inspections to ensure the plant is safe or
permanently shut down Davis-Besse. The plant is in Oak Harbor about
25 miles east of Toledo.
The groups charged that FirstEnergy failed to follow safety
regulations, which allowed boric acid to eat one cavity almost
through the top of the reactor head vessel, a vital safety feature
that covers the radioactive fuel. A second, much smaller cavity was
subsequently discovered in a different location on the 6
But NRC spokesman Jan Strasma said regulators have not determined
if there have been any safety violations at the plant. The federal
government has ordered FirstEnergy to do a thorough exam of the
entire reactor coolant system, not just of the damaged area, he
``I think that's what they (the Ohio groups) are asking for,'' he
FirstEnergy has followed all safety procedures and programs,
company spokesman Richard Wilkins said.
Repairing the reactor is a high stakes safety issue and a
corporate finance issue, with broad implications for the nuclear
power industry and Akron-based FirstEnergy.
Since the damage was disclosed on March 11, investors in
FirstEnergy stock have lost $1.5 billion in value, based on
yesterday's closing price of $33.60 per share. The stock has fallen
13 percent since March 11.
Each day the 883-megawatt Davis-Besse plant is down may cost
FirstEnergy as much as $500,000 a day, or $15 million a month, in
additional energy costs during the peak warm-weather season.
Repairing the vessel head has been estimated to cost between $5
million and $10 million. Replacing the damaged part would cost about
$20 million and delay restarting by about two years.
Also, the NRC is investigating whether any of the nation's 68
other pressurized water reactor vessels similar to Davis-Besse may
have, or be susceptible to, the same kind of damage. The owners of
the 34 so-called boiling water reactors such as FirstEnergy's Perry
plant have also been notified of the problem.
FirstEnergy officials have said they hope to patch the reactor
vessel head and get the plant restarted no later than the end of
June. The plant, shut down since Feb. 16 for refueling and a safety
inspection, was initially rescheduled to be restarted at the end of
Lochbaum said he couldn't rule out a late June restart based on
what he knows so far. ``It's still doable,'' he said.
Still, the June date was always tentative and it's possible the
plant will remain closed well into the summer, FirstEnergy's Wilkins
said. He said the company won't know how probable that outlook is
until a group of 50 experts at Davis-Besse determine what caused the
damage and how to repair it. They are expected to have findings
ready in about two weeks, he said.
``We haven't seen anything that says three months is
unreasonable,'' Wilkins said. FirstEnergy can't make any repairs
without first having its plans reviewed by others in the nuclear
power industry and then getting final approval by the NRC, he
One repair option being discussed involves cutting out the
damaged carbon-steel areas and replacing them with stainless steel,
Wilkins said. No repair plans have been submitted to the NRC.
FirstEnergy will no longer use the word ``patch'' to informally
refer to the repair plans, Wilkins said. ``It's a little more
complicated than (a patch),'' he said.
Whether the reactor vessel head will be repaired or replaced
remains an open issue, the NRC's Strasma said.
``Whatever the company presents to us, we will evaluate,'' he
The NRC expects to hold a public meeting near Davis-Besse toward
the end of the first week in April to present preliminary findings
from an NRC investigative team on site at the plant, he said.
The boric acid, part of the reactor coolant, apparently leaked
out through hairline cracks in devices called nozzles and onto the
carbon steel vessel head. But the acid couldn't eat through a thin
layer of stainless-steel cladding that lines the inside of the
reactor vessel head.
That thin layer of steel prevented a ``loss of coolant'' accident
that would have spewed radioactive coolant into the much larger
containment chamber building, officials said. Safety devices would
have detected the leak immediately and shut down the reactor with no
leak of radioactivity into the environment, they said.