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