A coalition of environmental groups has petitioned federal regulators to hold license-amendment hearings regarding FirstEnergy’s plans to replace steam generators at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant -- a hearing the groups say should have been held years ago.
The steam generators scheduled for installation next year at the Ottawa County plant will be so different from the equipment they will replace that it constitutes an “experimental design” that poses both safety and financial risks, according to a coalition statement.
“Once again, FirstEnergy’s indifference to anything but maximum profit dictates the dance,” Terry Lodge, the groups’ Toledo-based lawyer, said in the statement. “What if this new, experimental design doesn’t work out, just as steam generator replacements in the last three reactors have proven financial disasters?”
“We are about to open up a whole new can of worms at Davis-Besse -- this will be the death knell,” said Michael Keegan, a spokesman in Monroe for Don’t Waste Michigan, one of the four groups.
Along with issues associated with the steam generators themselves, he said, their replacement will require cutting yet another hole through the plant’s outer Shield Building, which has “already been compromised" by previous holes.
Jennifer Young, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said the utility’s “rigorous engineering and evaluation process” for any plant modifications is “closely reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
“Protecting the health and safety of the public is the top priority of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company and the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station,” she said.
Along with Don’t Waste Michigan, Beyond Nuclear, Citizens’ Environmental Alliance of Southwestern Ontario, and the Sierra Club have petitioned the NRC for hearings.
Viktoria Mitlyng, an NRC spokesman, said the agency’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board “will follow its normal process to review the petition.”
The environmental groups, which in separate proceedings are fighting FirstEnergy’s application to renew Davis-Besse’s operating license past its 2017 expiration, said the steam-generator issue “risks repeating the same sort of dangerous mistakes made at the San Onofre nuclear power plant in southern California.”
A steam generator tube rupture there early last year released a small amount of radioactive steam into the air and prompted discovery of unexpected wear on the generators’ steam tubes, apparently caused by a design flaw. San Onofre’s two generating units remain out of service 16 months later.
Activists there called for license-amendment hearings, which were not held, before four new steam generators were installed at San Onofre.
Steam generators “function as heat exchangers to produce the superheated steam that is used to drive the turbine generator,” Ms. Young said. “Such components are found in all pressurized-water reactors, and replacement of these components after a period of time is common.
“Davis-Besse’s current steam generators are original plant components, and replacement is part of the plan for long-term safe and reliable operation of the plant,” she said.
Davis-Besse is now operating at 100 percent power, Ms. Young said. The generator replacements are planned as part of a refueling shutdown scheduled during 2014, she said.
Holes were cut into the plant's Shield Building twice previously to replace its reactor head -- the first time in March 2006 after boric acid was discovered to have eaten away a six-inch cavity, leaving just a three-eighths-inch stainless-steel liner intact to keep radiation from escaping into the reactor's containment building.
During the second replacement, begun in October, 2011, a hairline crack was discovered in the Shield Building's concrete that an investigation determined was part of extensive such cracking throughout the structure's outer layers. FirstEnergy determined that the cracks were caused by moisture that seeped into the concrete during heavy rain early in what became the Blizzard of 1978 and then froze when temperatures plunged.
FirstEnergy has since sealed the concrete with a weather-proofing material and agreed to on-going tests to monitor the structure's integrity.