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Published: Friday, 12/2/2011

Davis-Besse allowed to restart operations


OAK HARBOR, Ohio — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given FirstEnergy a green light to restart the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant while ordering the company to investigate further the cause and extent of cracks discovered during October in the plant’s concrete shield building.

In a “confirmatory action letter” to FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., Cynthia Pederson, the NRC’s acting regional administrator, wrote that her agency had been provided “reasonable assurance that the shield building is capable of performing its safety functions” despite the multiple hairline cracks discovered after a hole was cut in the concrete through which reactor heads were swapped out.

But the letter requires FirstEnergy to “provide the results of the root cause evaluation and corrective actions to the NRC, including any long-term monitoring requirements, by Feb. 28, 2012” and describes the nature of further testing necessary to determine if the cracks are spreading or widening.

Further study also will be required during a refueling outage scheduled for next year, Ms. Pederson wrote.

NRC also announced that a public meeting will be held, on a date and at a place to be determined, during which FirstEnergy will “discuss their technical analysis and explain why the plant is safe to continue to operate with the cracks in the shield building.”

The commission said it would issue its own inspection report and conclusions about the plant on Jan. 16.

Jennifer Young, a FirstEnergy spokesman, confirmed that the re-start go-ahead had been received, but declined to say when Davis-Besse would be back on-line.

“We are wrapping up our outage activities, and beginning the re-start,” Ms. Young said Friday.

The Davis-Besse plant’s reactor chamber is enclosed by a 1.5-inch thick steel containment vessel and the shield building, made of concrete 2.5 feet thick. Officials have described the shield building’s primary role as protection of the plant against terrorism or natural disasters, but it also would provide secondary containment if the steel enclosure were breached.

FirstEnergy is in the midst of applying for an extension of Davis-Besse’s operating license, which expires in 2017. Anti-nuclear activists have argued that the cracking concrete in the shield building is yet another reason, on top of the plant’s troubled safety history, for Davis-Besse’s license not to be renewed or, alternatively, to be extended for a shorter time than the 20-year extension FirstEnergy has requested.

A 30-foot, barely visible crack was discovered in “architectural concrete” adorning the outside of the Shield Building after workers used hydro-demolition — high-pressure water — Oct. 10 to cut the hole for the reactor-head exchange. Additional, similar cracks were later discovered during investigation.

Michael Keegan, one of several critics who have intervened in the re-licensing proceedings, called the Confirmatory Action Letter “a big fat nothing” and repeated his doubts about the wisdom of re-starting Davis-Besse.

The NRC’s re-start approval, he said, is “a promise to kick the can down the road and roll the dice one more time. The concept of ‘Use As Is,’ when it comes to operating a nuclear power plant, is a risky proposition.”

In a Nov. 21 letter to the NRC, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) questioned the Shield Building’s structural soundness in light of the crack and requested a hearing like the one the agency said it will hold — except that Mr. Kucinich wanted the hearing held before the plant’s restart.

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

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