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Crunch energizes nuclear industry


Ohio Sen. George Voinovich says he wants to help jump-start the nuclear industry.

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OAK HARBOR - America's energy crunch could breathe new life into the nation's aging nuclear plants, including two about 25 miles from Toledo.

FirstEnergy Corp. has notified federal regulators it intends to seek a 20-year extension of its license to operate the Davis-Besse nuclear plant along State Rt. 2 in Ottawa County.

Davis-Besse's original 40-year license is due to expire April 22, 2017, but would be extended until 2037 if the utility's application - scheduled to be filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by December, 2004 - is approved. The review takes about two years. FirstEnergy got the process moving in May by filing a notice of intent.

Detroit Edison Co.'s Fermi II nuclear plant in northern Monroe County, which went on line in the summer of 1985, is not yet eligible to apply for an extension, although spokesman Guy Cerullo said that will be a “viable option” when the time comes. Nuclear plants must first pass the midway point of their license before an extension can be sought. Fermi II's license is due to expire March 20, 2025.

The industry's confidence is running high, despite heightened security after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The regulatory commission has all nuclear plants on high alert until further notice, deploying measures beyond the customary armed guards, badge-entry locks, and concrete barriers. Details are classified information that government officials are not allowed to discuss, Jan Strasma, the regulatory spokesman, said.

Spokesmen for Davis-Besse and Fermi II declined to elaborate but acknowledged tours have been suspended and guards instructed to be more inquisitive about people coming on the property.

The Coast Guard has declared Lake Erie recreational boating off limits within two miles of Davis-Besse and Fermi II until further notice. The first violation is a warning; the second could result in a fine as high as $10,000.

Security concerns aside, the nuclear industry - once viewed as America's energy of the future - has been mired in a 23-year slump. Orders for plants halted in 1978 as investors got fed up with cost overruns, inflation, and construction delays. About a dozen projects that were begun between 1974 and 1978 were scrapped.

The wave of post-1979 regulations after the Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pa., made the prospect of such ventures even less profitable. The last plant to open was Watts Bar 1 in Tennessee in 1996, but that facility got its construction permit in 1973 and took 23 years to build.

Now, with the country still struggling to meet its energy demands, utilities such as FirstEnergy figure there's no reason to shut down perfectly good nuclear plants.

Six of America's 103 operating reactors have been issued 20-year extensions, starting last year. Another 14 applications are pending. The Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's chief lobbyist group, expects 26 more applications to be submitted over the next five or six years, meaning that before the end of the decade nearly half of the nation's plants could have their licenses extended.

“It's definitely an industry trend,” Mr. Cerullo noted. “If these plants are still in good shape, we can keep operating them for a number of years.”

Steve Kerekes, the energy institute spokesman, said the original licenses were set for 40 years because that was the length of time estimated to recoup investments. “There's nothing magical about 40 years in terms of a design standpoint,” agreed Richard Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman.

Government officials acknowledge the 40-year time frame was “certainly somewhat arbitrary,” Mr. Strasma said.

Extensions are limited to 20 years and require proof of reliability, as well as a utility's detailed schedule for replacing equipment often enough to keep plants running safely.

Davis-Besse rebounded from its darkest hour - a 12-minute interruption of feedwater to steam generators on June 9, 1985 - to score high on most of its evaluations in the 1990s. On March 21, 1997, the regulatory commission's regional administrator even lauded the plant as “one of the better, if not the best,” in his eight-state jurisdiction that includes 28 Midwestern nuclear plants.

The industry's biggest obstacle continues to be uncertainty over what to do with spent fuel from nuclear plant reactors, Mr. Kerekes said.

He and other nuclear advocates expect that, by year's end, the White House will receive scientific justification from the U.S. Department of Energy to designate Nevada's Yucca Mountain the national repository. But even if that happens and the Bush administration promptly moves forward with it, Yucca Mountain is not expected to be ready until at least 2010 - 12 years behind schedule. The cost: a staggering $50 billion.

“What Wall Street wants to see is progress on the nuclear-waste management side,” said Mr. Kerekes, predicting the government soon will receive the first application to build a nuclear plant since 1978. “We don't expect a slew of orders in the next 18 to 24 months, but we do expect a few new nuclear plant orders in over the next four or five years,” he said.

As Mr. Wilkins said, it's a “no-brainer” to seek first a 20-year extension to an existing facility instead of coming up with billions of dollars to build from scratch. Davis-Besse was designed to hold up to two other plants, he said.

On Aug. 27, FirstEnergy President Bob Saunders alluded to the potential of a new plant there while hosting U.S. Sen. George Voinovich's first tour of that complex. He agreed with the senator that existing complexes, such as Davis-Besse, likely would get any new units that are built to minimize controversy over siting criteria. Mr. Voinovich (R., Ohio) said his visit was inspired by his desire to help jump-start the industry.

Detroit Edison has two units, but one is dormant. Mr. Cerullo confirmed there is plenty of room to build more but declined to specify a number.

As an industry, nuclear generates about 100,000 megawatts of power, roughly a fifth of America's electricity. It has established a national goal of generating 50 percent more power - a daily output of 150,000 megawatts - within 20 years, mainly by improving efficiency at its plants.

FirstEnergy is planning improvements that would increase Davis-Besse's power output by about 15 percent in five years, taking generating capacity of 935 megawatts up by about 125 megawatts. That's enough to power 60,000 more homes.

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