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Updated Thursday, March 14, 2002
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Posted on Thu, Mar. 14, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Davis-Besse woes grow
Damage to nuclear plant may cost up to $10 million to fix. FirstEnergy stock takes hit, anti-nuclear group opposes restart

Beacon Journal business writer

The damage to the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant may cost FirstEnergy as much as $55 million and delay its restart until June, when summer electricity use begins to peak, the utility announced yesterday.

Meanwhile, the plant's woes raise concerns that other plants might have similar safety problems.

The nuclear power industry and nuclear power opponents are intensely interested in the discovery that boric acid, a byproduct of the nuclear reaction, apparently carved a 6-inch-deep cavity in the 6 3/8-inch-thick steel reactor head, a vital safety component that covers the fuel core.

``This was something that was not expected. It was not predicted to occur. We have not seen this kind of erosion,'' said Brian Sheron, associate director for the project license and technical assessment office in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. His office is overseeing the NRC's investigation at Davis-Besse.

The discovery has had repercussions near and far.

FirstEnergy's stock has taken a hit on the news. Regulatory investigators and others are scrambling to find what caused the cavity, which is 4 by 5 inches. At least one anti-nuclear group opposes the plant's restart. First-Energy says it can buy power from other suppliers, if needed, until the nuclear plant is running again.

And while there's no danger of a core meltdown or release of radiation at Davis-Besse, the discovery of the cavity could force the temporary shutdown of other nuclear power plants of similar design elsewhere in the nation to check for signs of cavity formation, Sheron said.

While a widespread shut-down is unlikely, other operators of pressurized water nuclear power plants will have to prove to the NRC that their own safety inspections have already accounted for, or soon will account for, the kind of degradation found at Davis-Besse, he said.

Nuclear plants that are scheduled to shut down this spring for inspections, maintenance or refueling will have to check for the degradation, he said.

Other plants not scheduled for shutdown will have to tell the NRC ``Why do you believe you don't have this problem?'' he said. If they can't answer that question to the agency's satisfaction, the NRC can force the power plant to shut down until an inspection is done, he said.

One prominent anti-nuclear power group yesterday called upon the NRC and FirstEnergy to not allow the reactor to restart until a permanent reactor head vessel, which covers the radioactive fuel core, is installed. That could take as long as two years to manufacture, a FirstEnergy spokesman said.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based group that opposes nuclear power, said the plant came dangerously close to a catastrophic accident -- a charge FirstEnergy called ``nonsense.''

The NRC's Sheron also said there was no immediate danger to the public. ``These reactors do have a lot of (safety) margins and are strong. We design for that kind of accident.''

But the Davis-Besse cavity shows that neither federal regulators nor the nuclear power industry knows everything that happens inside a nuclear power plant, said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

``There are so many unknowns,'' he said. ``FirstEnergy should not be allowed to fire the reactor up without replacing the reactor vessel head.''

FirstEnergy had already ordered a new vessel head prior to the discovery of the cavity, said plant spokesman Richard Wilkins. But the vessel can't be built and delivered for at least another two years, he said.

The utility is devising ways to repair the damage and operate the reactor until the new vessel head is installed.

``What we're looking at is doing it right,'' Wilkins said.

About 50 people are working on the repair project, including some of the world's best nuclear experts, he said.

The Akron utility said repairs will delay restarting the Oak Harbor plant, which first began operating in 1977, through May and possibly into June.

Davis-Besse has been closed since Feb. 16 for refueling and the safety inspection, and was originally set to begin producing power again on March 31.

The NRC last year ordered operators of the nation's 69 pressurized-water reactors like Davis-Besse to look for cracks in parts inside reactor vessels called control rod penetration nozzles. Five of Davis-Besse's 69 nozzles were found to have cracks; one of the nozzles apparently allowed boric acid to form on the reactor vessel itself and eat into the carbon steel. The acid stopped when it came into contact with a 3/8-inch layer of stainless steel.

Repairs alone could cost between $5 million and $10 million, FirstEnergy said.

In addition, FirstEnergy said the loss of Davis-Besse's generating capability will increase its energy costs by $10 million to $15 million each month the plant remains inoperative.

The company said the outage could reduce its after-tax earnings by 5 to 10 cents per share.

FirstEnergy's stock has fallen 6.3 percent since Monday's close. Shares yesterday were down 76 cents to $36.23. The stock is still up 3.6 percent year to date, and up 37 percent from the same date a year ago.

It's uncertain how the loss of Davis-Besse's generation capability for an extended period will impact the state. The plant provides 873 megawatts of power.

FirstEnergy said it can contract to buy power from other producers for its customers as needed. In addition, FirstEnergy and other utilities in recent years have been adding so-called peaking facilities that can supply electricity for periods of high usage, such as during a heat wave.

Peak electricity usage for the summer usually happens in July and August, according to the East Central Area Reliability Council. The Canton-based organization monitors electricity usage and capability for an eight-state region that includes Ohio. The council's forecast on electricity generation and demand for this summer isn't ready.


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