The aging Davis-Besse nuclear power plant has some serious structural problems, but keeping the facility operating - assuming it can be done safely - is in the best interests of electric customers in Toledo and northwest Ohio.
When it's fully powered up, Davis-Besse pumps out 883 megawatts, virtually all of the electricity consumed by homes, businesses, and industries in the city of Toledo and a big chunk of the surrounding area.
Shutting down the plant, as suggested by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, could leave the region with a serious power shortage that could not be met in time to prevent brownouts or even blackouts in the event of a hot summer. Who knows what economic uncertainty an unreliable electric supply might entail?
At the same time, it is obvious that FirstEnergy Corp. will have to do a better maintenance job, especially in reading the warning signs of defects in the 25-year-old plant. Company officials admit that they failed “to make the connection” between rust that showed up three years ago and serious chemical corrosion that nearly cut through the steel lid covering Davis-Besse's nuclear reactor.
Instead, the utility relied on visual inspections in which, officials concede, the inspectors' view was partially obstructed. Such careless inattention to detail should not be countenanced, given the possible dangers of a nuclear plant.
After boric acid ate away six inches of carbon steel, all that prevented a potentially damaging leak of radioactive steam into the containment vessel protecting the pressurized-water reactor was a layer of stainless steel just a hair thicker than the width of the word “width.”
Plant workers stumbled on the corrosion damage while trying to repair a cracked and leaking reactor control-rod drive mechanism after the plant was shut down Feb. 16 for routine refueling.
While there was no direct threat to the public of radiation exposure, an extended outage for repair of the plant could prove exceedingly expensive for FirstEnergy and its Toledo-area customers.
The utility wants to patch things up at a cost of some $10 million and restart the plant by late June, but the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have the last word on whether such repairs are feasible and safe.
In addition, the reactor will have to be shut down for an indeterminate period for replacement of the damaged reactor cap, a $20 million repair that will require cutting a hole in the building that houses the reactor and containment vessel. A new reactor cap takes two years to custom manufacture.
FirstEnergy is prohibited from passing on the cost of these repairs to customers under the current rate freeze. And when Davis-Besse is down, the company must buy electricity from outside sources at an estimated $10 million to $15 million a month, a cost the company also absorbs.
But the rate freeze expires at the end of 2005. Then “the market” will set the price.
In the long run, such expensive maintenance problems could mean that customers would pay more - probably significantly more - to keep the lights on. FirstEnergy's license to operate Davis-Besse has 15 years to run, and the utility has served notice it will ask for a 10-year extension.
Toledoans, already saddled with electric rates that continue to be among the highest in the nation, don't want to pay more, but the alternative - simply shutting Davis-Besse down forever - would be even more costly to the region.