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Agency nixes review plea for project at Davis-Besse

Activists weigh appeal to federal board ruling

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A federal agency has denied four environmental activist groups’ request for a formal hearing to review FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Corp.’s plans to replace steam generators at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, a utility spokesman has said.

In a decision issued this week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that Beyond Nuclear, Citizens’ Environmental Alliance of Southwestern Ontario, Don’t Waste Michigan, and the Ohio Sierra Club’s objection to the steam-generator replacements was not germane to FirstEnergy’s request for a license amendment, which is much narrower in scope.

The utility company is seeking to change four of the Ottawa County power plant’s technical specifications related to its steam generators, and for that it must have the plant’s license amended. But according to the ruling, the actual replacement of the steam generators is something FirstEnergy “hopes to accomplish ... without obtaining a license amendment” as provided by relevant statute, the licensing board noted.

Separating the technical specifications review from other aspects of the project analysis “does raise certain issues regarding information availability,” the board noted, but the NRC has specifically forbidden the licensing board from reviewing actions taken in accordance with the regulations governing plant changes, tests, and experiments.

Members of the public may only challenge those actions by petitioning NRC’s executive director for operations for staff review, the board said.

FirstEnergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself had both opposed the groups’ petition.

“We agree with the decision, we think they made the right decision,” said Jennifer Young, a FirstEnergy spokesman. “We are continuing with our preparations to replace the steam generators in the spring of 2014.”

Terry Lodge, a Toledo lawyer representing the environmental groups, said his clients are considering whether to appeal, for which there is a Sept. 6 deadline, or file a new petition under a different section of federal law.

Michael Keegan, a spokesman for Don’t Waste Michigan, said the licensing board’s denial effectively denies public review “of what amounts to the largest and most complex modification in the histrionics of Davis-Besse” and proves that federal nuclear regulators learned nothing from the failed steam-generator replacements at a plant in San Onofre, Calif., whose owner recently gave up on trying to salvage the facility.

“The NRC refuses to regulate up front and attempts to do it from the rearview mirror, after the fact,” Mr. Keegan said. “While FirstEnergy is content to duck regulatory oversight they will not be able to duck the laws of physics. The Davis-Besse steam generator replacement project reeks. The last four steam generator replacements industrywide have failed.”

Addressing that issue, the licensing board stated that even if it could review the overall generator-replacement project, the four groups “offer only speculation regarding the alleged inadequacies of that analysis.” Basing their argument on “the fact that steam generator replacements in other reactors have experienced problems is not adequately supported,” the board ruled.

The environmental groups continue to oppose renewal of the Davis-Besse plant’s operating license, which expires in 2017. FirstEnergy has applied to the NRC for a 20-year extension.

Prema Chandrathil, an NRC spokesman, said agency review of the steam-generator project is ongoing as FirstEnergy develops and revises its plans for the replacement, so the possibility continues to exist that the utility will be required to obtain a license amendment for the project. Such an amendment would be required, she said, if officials determine that the scope of work will place the plant “outside the safety boundaries for which it was originally licensed.”

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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