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Published: Wednesday, 8/13/2003

FirstEnergy officials list reactor progress


OAK HARBOR, Ohio - Three hours of briefings and questioning yesterday between federal regulators and officials from the company that operates the closed Davis-Besse nuclear plant failed to answer the question at the top of everyone's list.

When, exactly, is the plant going to reopen?

“Sometime this fall, I would guess,” said Lew Myers, chief operating officer of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., which manages Davis-Besse. “Unless something breaks we don't understand.”

Mr. Myers made his comments while on a break during the monthly public meeting between officials with FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. and members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight panel in the auditorium of Oak Harbor High School.

The panel is charged with overseeing repairs at the plant, where it was discovered that the reactor head was nearly breached in February, 2002, closing Davis-Besse for the last 19 months.

Pasted on the auditorium wall was a chart listing 31 actions the panel has instructed FirstEnergy to complete before the agency will consider approving Davis-Besse's reopening. Sixteen are completed, panel members said yesterday.

Pointing to the chart, Mr. Myers said many of the remaining 15 actions are nearly completed, helping fuel the optimism that was prevalent among FirstEnergy officials as they explained their progress to the six panel members.

“We're about 80 percent there,” he said.

By the end of the month, Mr. Myers said, FirstEnergy will be ready to implement a seven-day test of the reactor's cooling system. During the test, the reactor will not be started, but normal operating pressures and temperatures will be reached to affect adequate simulation of normal reactor operating conditions, panel members said.

Despite the apparent progress by FirstEnergy, Jack Grobe, the panel's chairman, told company officials he was being cautious in his evaluation of the company's accomplishments.

Mr. Grobe said FirstEnergy is taking steps to correct equipment, electrical, staffing, safety, and other concerns appear to be on target, but the crucial question is whether the measures will last.

“Do we have confidence that [Davis-Besse] will continue to be safe in the future,” Mr. Grobe asked. “I want them to explain to us why they have confidence [it will].”

Yesterday's meeting demonstrated why Davis-Besse has been shut down so long. Every action is scrutinized, and every new part or piece of equipment, no matter how small, is tested and retested.

Bob Schrauder of FirstEnergy spent more than 30 minutes detailing the purchase and application of a bearing design from a French company.

The new bearing is significant because it will do a better job of protecting the reactor's high-pressure injection pumps from being damaged by debris that strainers fail to catch, as happened in the past, Mr. Schrauder said.

“It's near the top of the technical item list. It's something that has to be fixed before the plant can start up,” said regulatory commission spokesman Jan Strasma.

Mr. Strasma said when Mr. Grobe's panel signs off on FirstEnergy's checklist, the director of the regulatory commission's Region III office in Lisle, Ill., will decide when Davis-Besse can reopen, after getting the OK from officials at commission headquarters in Rockville, Md.

“This is a big deal so, obviously, there is a lot of coordinating to do,” he said.

But don't ask the panel members when the plant will be up and running. “They don't know when it will open. That's up to the Davis-Besse group,” Mr. Strasma said.

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