Short-term Davis-Besse halt viewed as not costly


If the repairs under way at FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Oak Harbor are completed before summer, it shouldn't affect the utility's bottom line.

But if the situation drags on - as did a 2002 situation in which its reactor head had to be replaced - it could start cutting into FirstEnergy's ability to make money, experts contend.

"Ideally they are probably hoping it will be back before July," said Daniele Seitz, an energy analyst with Dudack Research Group.

"They just entered a period of market-rate power. They go out every day and try to figure out who is going to be buying their power, and they have already made the investment in that plant, so you want to make sure that plant is on, because that's your best bet in a competitive situation."

Davis-Besse, which generates 908 megawatts of FirstEnergy's total output of 14,200 megawatts, was scheduled to be out of action now for routine maintenance. But testing revealed 13 of 52 nozzles of its control-rod mechanism showed cracks or fatigue, forcing an extended outage until they are repaired.

Although Davis-Besse is part of the utility's overall generating capacity, its greater contribution, Ms. Seitz said, is that it produces power at a very low cost. "It's the plant with the best profit margin," she said.

Paul Fremont, an analyst with Jefferies Research, said the first question is how much more time are the nozzle repairs going to take. "How much longer than a normal refueling will this last?"

The 2002-2004 reactor head repairs cost FirstEnergy $600 million in repairs and expense to buy energy to supply customers. But Mr. Fremont said that in the earlier situation "there was a real safety concern associated with the type of problem they identified, and it was compounded by [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] concerns with the business practices at the plant."

Those conditions aren't present now, and a major delay isn't expected, Mr. Fremont said.

In the summer season, when electric use peaks, FirstEnergy, which owns Toledo Edison, already buys power beyond the 14,200 megawatts it generates in order to supply its 4.5 million customers. Depending on need, it buys 4,000 to 6,000 added megawatts during the summer.

Jim Halloran, an analyst with the Russell Energy Advisors unit of Financial America Securities, said buying 908 more megawatts this summer would not be a large expense for FirstEnergy because energy costs are down. But facing the NRC for the second time in six years could result in more requested repairs.

Ellen Raines, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said the utility doesn't know how long the repairs will take. "We don't really know how it impacts us overall," she said. Davis-Besse is "a baseload plant, and you can assume we'd want that baseload capacity to be online as soon as possible," she said.

- Jon Chavez