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OAK HARBOR, Ohio — Barring complications, it’s not that important for northwest Ohio residents to know what steam generators are or how they help nuclear power plants generate electricity.
All they need to know is that during the first weekend of February, FirstEnergy Corp. began following through on its commitment to replace the Davis-Besse nuclear plant’s two original steam generators, at a cost of $600 million.
Davis-Besse Vice President Ray Lieb said the investment “supports our commitment to remaining an integral part of northwest Ohio’s economy for many decades to come.”
The scheduled maintenance took about a decade of planning. It is expected to infuse $108 million in the local economy, with $150 million of economic benefits statewide, according to research by Applied Economics, a Phoenix-based consultant hired by the utility.
More than $147 million of the project’s budget will be spent on salaries, FirstEnergy said.
Steam generator replacement projects are typically the most expensive maintenance done at the two-thirds of America’s nuclear plants that, like Davis-Besse, have pressurized-water reactors. They’re such massive undertakings they’re not expected to be done more than once in a plant’s service life, if at all.
The other third have reactors with a boiling-water design, which do not use steam generators. DTE Energy’s Fermi 2 nuclear plant north of Monroe is an example of that type.
The steam generators being installed at Davis-Besse are 74 feet long by 12 feet wide, weigh 470 tons, and were built by the Babcock & Wilcox Co. of Canada. They act as heat exchangers and produce super-hot steam used to spin the plant’s turbine generator to produce electricity.
Jennifer Young, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said the utility does not divulge maintenance outage lengths for proprietary reasons: Utilities sometimes compete against each other to buy electricity on the open market while their plants are down for service.
She acknowledged the project has taken more than two months at some plants.
The Applied Economics report, written in November, said the work “will take place over the next six months.”
As many as 2,300 additional local union and traveling contracted workers are expected to augment Davis-Besse’s regular 700-member work force during the outage, which also will include a refueling of the reactor core.
Nuclear plants are refueled every 18 to 24 months, depending on their grade of fuel. Each refueling consists of replacing a third of the core’s reactor fuel.
To Carl Koebel, an Ottawa County commissioner in 2002 when the near-rupture of Davis-Besse’s original reactor head rocked the global nuclear industry, the plant’s new steam generators are more than just a sign the plant has finally emerged from its troubled past.
He said he also sees the project as a firm commitment to the region, an investment that shows the utility has no plans to shut Davis-Besse down before April, 2037. FirstEnergy is seeking a 20-year extension of the plant’s original license, which expires in April, 2017.
“Yeah, I guess there’s a feeling our fight was worth it,” Mr. Koebel said. “I’m glad they’ve put faith in the people here — that’s what they’ve done by keeping that plant going.”
The reactor-head crisis arose 17 years after a 1985 feedwater problem also had put Davis-Besse into an unwanted national spotlight.
Cracked, corroded by leaking acid, and starting to bulge, the failing reactor head became a symptom of plant mismanagement to federal regulators. They converged on the site days after a deep cavity was discovered, launching into a series of investigations.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice issued record fines and took legal action against those deemed responsible. The head was in such bad shape that radioactive steam could have formed. That scenario could have threatened not only public safety, but also the plant’s future.
Mr. Koebel, who for years was a liaison between county government and the utility, recalled last week how he went from disbelief to angry acceptance as the 2002 event unfolded. More so than other public officials, he was immersed in documents and discussions about the plant.
Now, five years after leaving public office, he sees Davis-Besse coming full circle with the steam-generator project.
“I’m excited to see what’s going on because it is going to extend the life of the plant and the safety of the plant,” Mr. Koebel said. “This is proof that what FirstEnergy said, about a long-term commitment to the plant 10 or 15 years ago, is going to happen.”
That commitment comes as the nuclear industry fends off threats from falling natural-gas prices, a phenomenon driven by the national boom in hydraulic fracturing of shale bedrock, or “fracking.” The game-changer for the oil and gas industry has been the development of a horizontal drilling technique that can be done in tandem with fracking, providing access to previously untapped oil and gas reserves throughout North America and other parts of the world.
Ohio is expected to become engaged this year in a fracking boom expected to last the next 25 or 30 years.
Four of America’s 104 nuclear plants that were in operation a year ago announced plans to close in 2013.
At least two of those closings — Vermont Yankee and the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin — are seen by the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute as victims of falling natural gas prices.
The NEI’s president and chief executive officer, Marv Fertel, is to discuss the state of the nuclear industry Thursday during an annual briefing in New York with Wall Street analysts.
FirstEnergy also remains on guard for the type of installation problems that led to Southern California Edison’s decision to close its two San Onofre reactors.
That site along the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and San Diego was fraught with problems after a radioactive steam leak caused extensive damage to San Onofre’s new steam generators, installed in 2009 and 2010 at a cost of $670 million.
The NEI has noted, though, that 57 reactors have replaced their steam generators since 1980, none of which experienced the same issues as San Onofre.
An NRC spokesman said a few months ago the San Onofre case had “tube-to-tube wear behavior never before seen.”
One of Davis-Besse’s sister plants, the Crystal River nuclear plant in west-central Florida, was shuttered a year ago after irreparable cracks developed in its containment structure when it was cut open for new steam generators.
Davis-Besse and Crystal River are both Babcock & Wilcox designs, but have different types of containment. Davis-Besse’s has been cut open twice before, for reactor-head swaps.
FirstEnergy is taking great care to avoid a problem with this containment cut. It will stay within the dimension of earlier ones, Ms. Young said.
“We’ve applied the best practices of the industry,” she said.
Located along the Lake Erie shoreline in Ottawa County, Davis-Besse is 35 miles east of Toledo. It was the first of two nuclear plants built in Ohio; the other is the Perry nuclear plant east of Cleveland, where the NRC also has found a series of less-publicized equipment and operational issues over the years.
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.