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Published: Wednesday, 3/2/2011

Davis-Besse arguments presented to NRC panel

FirstEnergy seeking extension of license


PORT CLINTON -- A three-member panel of federal administrative judges listened to arguments about the future of FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse nuclear plant inside the Ottawa County Common Pleas courtroom for six hours yesterday, with 50 spectators taking up nearly every seat.

The proceeding was called for Beyond Nuclear, Citizens Environmental Alliance of Southwestern Ontario, Don't Waste Michigan, and the Green Party of Ohio to say why they should have a seat at the table when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and FirstEnergy decide whether the plant's license should be extended from April, 2017, to April, 2037. The decision may not occur for a year or two, but it could take longer if outside parties are allowed to intervene.

Alex S. Polonsky of Washington-based Morgan Lewis Counselors at Law, which has represented FirstEnergy on nuclear issues for years, told the panel that activists failed to identify shortcomings in the utility's application.

Toledo lawyer Terry Lodge and Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, who did most of the speaking for the activists, disagreed.

The first half of the proceeding was focused on projections for wind power, solar power, and a combination of the two as possible offsets for nuclear power. The afternoon was devoted to a FirstEnergy document known as a Severe Accident Mitigation Analysis, one in which utilities are obligated to show how they would respond to dangerous nuclear scenarios.

Arguments in favor of renewables appear to rely on the viability of harnessing wind, solar, and other sources for later use through a technology known as compressed air energy storage, judges said. Mr. Polonsky conceded it has potential and should be explored.

"But that doesn't mean it is a reasonable alternative to a 908-megawatt reactor," he said, referring to Davis-Besse's generating capacity.

Mr. Lodge said revolutionary changes have occurred within the energy sector, with wind power becoming the fastest-growing form of energy. "This is all about calculating risk," he said. "What guarantees do we have that Davis-Besse is going to operate at full capacity or not have some cataclysmic event like 2002?"

The plant's original reactor head nearly burst in 2002. A rupture would have allowed radioactive steam to fill up containment for the first time since the half-core meltdown of Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island Unit 2 in 1979.

Mr. Kamps made passing references to Davis-Besse's safety record while addressing judges, drawing an admonishment from Mr. Polonsky. The panel ruled Feb. 18 that the plant's safety record was not admissible.

Viktoria Mitlyng, NRC spokesman, said only environmental issues and those pertaining to aging plant materials are allowed by law.

Davis-Besse was sidelined four months in 2010 because its second reactor head eroded faster than expected.

The utility got the plant back into service by agreeing to move up plans for installing the reactor's third head this fall.

In an agency briefing in Washington, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko opened yesterday by telling agency officials to "resist a sense of complacency about these issues, especially as the industry explores the possibility of subsequent license renewal."

He said: "The agency and its licensees have very limited experience in seeing how aging management programs actually work after the initial 40-year period of operation."

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.

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