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Posted on Sat, Mar. 23, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Scientist skeptical of repairs at reactor
Nuclear engineer says patches at Davis-Besse aren't certain at NRC

Beacon Journal business writer

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 3/8-inch-thick device.

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 said.

``I think that's what they (the Ohio groups) are asking for,'' he said.

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 March.

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 said.

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 said.

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.

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or
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