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Posted on Wed, Mar. 20, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
68 nuclear plants get U.S. query
Regulators want quick assurance Davis-Besse's damage doesn't lurk in similar reactors elsewhere

Beacon Journal business writer

Keeping nuclear power plants safe following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks remains the industry's No. 1 concern.

The No. 2 concern: finding out how acid damaged FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse nuclear power plant.

``This is a very significant issue for the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,'' said Jack Strosnider, director of the division of engineering in the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation.

Because of Davis-Besse, the NRC sent out bulletins yesterday to the operators of the nation's 68 other pressurized-water reactors, asking them to show that their plants don't have similar problems.

Typically, the NRC seeks responses from the industry in 30 to 45 days. This time, the federal agency gave 15.

The NRC wants to know if other power plants have similar damage or are vulnerable to corrosion that could challenge safety systems. At the least, new discoveries could cost plant owners tens of millions of dollars to fix; FirstEnergy estimates it will have to pay as much as $10 million for repairs and $10 million to $15 million a month to buy extra energy until Davis-Besse is restarted. The plant was shut down on Feb. 16 for refueling and an NRC-mandated safety inspection, which led to the discovery of the damage.

The NRC's bulletin was just one of the latest developments in the investigation into how boric acid, a byproduct of the nuclear reaction, unexpectedly chewed two cavities in Davis-Besse's steel reactor vessel head, a 150-ton safety device that's more than 6 inches thick and covers the radioactive fuel rods. One of the cavities is 6 inches deep, while the other is much smaller, about 1 inches deep.

A survey presented yesterday to the NRC by nuclear industry members reported that three other nuclear plants may be susceptible to the kind of damage found at Davis-Besse. The survey was conducted at the NRC's request. It didn't name the plants, but the NRC said it will get the names shortly. No other nuclear plants have reported similar damage, the NRC said.

``We'll see if we have to take further action,'' said Brian Sheron, associate director for project licensing and technical assessment with the NRC. ``The agency has the authority to shut down plants and order an inspection. We haven't had to do that yet.''

A second public meeting is scheduled from 1 to 5 p.m. today at NRC's headquarters in Rockville, Md.

Also yesterday, the NRC reported for the first time that the reactor vessel head's thin inner lining of stainless steel -- between 3/16 and 3/8 of an inch thick -- bulged slightly but still prevented radioactive coolant from spewing out through the deepest cavity and into the power plant's massive containment chamber, officials said. The NRC said the bulge was about 1/8 of an inch.

While the stainless steel lining is designed mainly for corrosion protection, it also helps contain the enormous pressure -- upwards of 2,500 pounds per square inch -- in addition to the much thicker carbon steel that encases it, officials said.

Initial calculations show that the stainless steel lining could have withstood far greater pressures before breaking, the NRC and FirstEnergy said.

Even if the lining had shattered and created what is called a ``loss of coolant'' accident -- something that's never happened in the United States -- safety devices would have shut the reactor down and prevented any radioactive materials from getting into the environment, officials have said.

``If everything works right, it's going to be an economic hit for the plant owner, not a safety hit,'' said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert with the Union for Concerned Scientists. A nuclear plant with a coolant loss could be cleaned up and running in about a year, he estimated.

FirstEnergy hopes to getDavis-Besse repaired and restarted before July, the company said again yesterday.

Details of those repairs will not be known until after the cause of the damage is determined. Two months, however, would not be long enough to replace the entire vessel head, a lengthy process that could cost $20 million.

The discovery of the second, smaller cavity will not delay repairs or add to the costs, Davis-Besse spokesman Richard Wilkins said.

FirstEnergy first has to figure out how the damage was created. Preliminary indications are that hairline cracks in parts called control rod nozzles allowed water with boron in it to touch the carbon steel that makes up the outside of the reactor vessel head. Three of Davis-Besse's 69 nozzles were found to have hairline cracks that extended all the way through the device. Cracks have been found in nozzles at other nuclear power plants, but industry experts said their calculations never predicted the kind of damage found at Davis-Besse.

Once a so-called root cause is found, FirstEnergy hopes the NRC will approve whatever repairs the utility comes up with.

FirstEnergy has ordered a new reactor vessel head, but that will take as long as two years to make. The massive device needs to be made in Japan, then shipped to France to be finished.

FirstEnergy said that no matter how long it takes to restart the 883-megawatt plant, its customers won't go without electricity. Davis-Besse represents about 14 percent of FirstEnergy's generating capacity.

``We'll handle it,'' spokesman Ralph DiNicola said.


Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com
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