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
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
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
½ 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
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
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
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
``We'll handle it,'' spokesman Ralph DiNicola said.