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Updated Thursday, April 25, 2002
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Posted on Thu, Apr. 25, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Davis-Besse fix to take time
FirstEnergy plant won't be running for months. More radioactive particles found outside facility

Beacon Journal business writer

FirstEnergy Corp., in releasing its quarterly earnings yesterday, says it isn't counting on generating electricity at its damaged Davis-Besse nuclear power plant until September at the earliest, assuming federal regulators approve repair plans that may be submitted today.

In related news, FirstEnergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported finding five more microscopic radioactive particles outside Davis-Besse. An improperly programmed radioactivity detector may have allowed a total of seven people who had worked in a highly radioactive area of Davis-Besse to leave with microscopic radioactive fuel particles sticking to them, the utility and NRC reported.

The Akron utility yesterday reported finding radioactive particles on three more people who worked under contract at Davis-Besse and who have since moved on to jobs in other states. The particles, part of a nuclear plant's fuel, generate radioactivity at barely detectable levels and are not a health or safety hazard, according to the NRC and FirstEnergy.

FirstEnergy's investigation has found a total of 18 radioactive particles on clothing, in vehicles or in current or former living quarters. Seven particles were found in Ohio, five in Virginia, five in South Carolina and one in Texas.

Initial reports last week said five workers might have left Davis-Besse with 13 radioactive particles on them. Some of the particles may have originated in other nuclear power plants, a FirstEnergy spokesman said.

A special whole-body monitor that looks for radioactivity on a person's body before he or she leaves Davis-Besse wasn't programmed for the kind of small radioactive fuel particles that were found outside the plant, according to a report FirstEnergy filed with the NRC yesterday. The NRC has three investigators at Davis-Besse looking into how the particles were allowed to leave the premises. The whole-body counter has since been recalibrated, a FirstEnergy spokesman said.

A person would have to be exposed to the five new particles for 76 years straight to receive the amount of radiation equivalent to one dental X-ray, FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said.

Also yesterday, a coalition of anti-nuclear groups formally asked the NRC to make FirstEnergy pay for a four-member independent panel to review safety concerns at Davis-Besse.

The group is concerned that the NRC and FirstEnergy may be overlooking other safety issues at Davis-Besse, said David Lochbaum, the nuclear power expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists who drafted the petition.

FirstEnergy's reports show that as much as 250,000 gallons of boric acid-contaminated water leaked into the reactor's containment chamber over a period of years, Lochbaum said. It's possible the corrosive acid has damaged other safety systems inside the chamber, he said.

The NRC in 1996 appointed a similar independent panel to look over safety systems at the Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut, he said.

Lochbaum said that three of the four panel members suggested by the coalition have a pro-nuclear bent ``but a questioning attitude.''

The petition says the panel would independently verify that FirstEnergy's responses are adequate and reassure the public that all reasonable safety measures have been taken.

``They may come out and say nothing's wrong,'' Lochbaum said.

``We'll review that request,'' NRC spokesman Jan Strasma said. ``Obviously, it's too early for the agency to respond to it.''

FirstEnergy's Schneider said the company had no comment on the petition.

FirstEnergy could have its Davis-Besse repair plans submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as early as today, company Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Richard Marsh told analysts yesterday in a conference call. Costs to repair the acid-damaged plant could exceed $16 million, he said.

In preliminary talks with the NRC on April 10, FirstEnergy officials said they proposed cutting out a large acid-created cavity on top of the steel reactor vessel head and welding into place a 300- to 400-pound stainless steel cylinder. The repairs would take three to four weeks to complete, using robots to do much of the work around the highly radioactive structure.

The NRC could take anywhere from four to eight weeks, maybe longer, to review the repair plans, an NRC official said last week. In addition, the NRC said it has to be assured that the nuclear plant doesn't have any other safety problems.

If the NRC approves the repairs, FirstEnergy said it expects to be able to restart Davis-Besse before the end of September. The power plant, in Oak Harbor on the Lake Erie shore about 25 miles east of Toledo, has been shut down since Feb. 16.

FirstEnergy said it has contracted to buy electricity through the end of August to replace the amount from Davis-Besse. The company said it expects to pay $10 million to $15 million a month for extra energy through June, then between $20 million and $25 million a month in July and August.

FirstEnergy reported that its net profit rose 18 percent for the first quarter of this year.

The Akron utility reported it had net income of $116 million, or 40 cents a share, on revenue of $2.8 billion. That compares to net income of $98 million, or 45 cents a share, on sales of $2 billion for the first quarter of 2001. The latest quarterly results include the acquisition of New Jersey-based GPU Energy.

Unseasonably mild weather and a slow economy that lowered energy demand caused first-quarter earnings to decline from a year ago, the company said. In addition, the company had a $33 million increase in nuclear operating expenses caused by refueling operations at the Davis-Besse and Beaver Valley plants.

FirstEnergy stock closed up 75 cents a share to $33.35. The stock is down 13.7 percent from its high of $38.65 on March 11, the date that FirstEnergy first announced the Davis-Besse damage.

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