updated 3/8/2004 3:25:31 PM ET 2004-03-08T20:25:31

An Ohio nuclear plant is being allowed to reopen after a two-year shutdown over safety issues stemming from a leaking acid that nearly ate through a protective steel reactor cap, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Monday.

Corrosion on the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant along Lake Erie east of Toledo, Ohio, was the most extensive ever found at a U.S. nuclear reactor and led to a review of 68 similar plants nationwide.

NRC officials blamed plant operators for allowing a breakdown in safety standards that caused the leak to go unnoticed for years. The plant is owned by FirstEnergy Corp., in Akron, Ohio, the same company that a U.S.-Canadian government task force said shares much of the blame for the Northeast blackout last August.

But the NRC also came under fire for not detecting the leak sooner. As a result, regulators have agreed to make changes to its safety and inspection procedures. On Monday, the agency said the plant can safely operate following numerous repairs and changes in management.

NRC will monitor the startup
“This basically is a new Davis-Besse that we’re going to be starting,” said FirstEnergy spokesman Richard Wilkins. “It’s new in many ways, not just the equipment, but also the way we operate the plant.”

He said it would take 10 to 14 days to bring the plant to full power. The NRC will monitor the startup around the clock and is assigning three full-time inspectors to the plant. Most nuclear plants have two inspectors.

The plant was closed in February 2002 for routine maintenance when inspectors found that corrosion on the reactor vessel, where leaking boric acid had nearly eaten through a 6-inch-thick steel cap.

FirstEnergy Corp. spent about $600 million making repairs and buying replacement power while the plant was prevented from producing electricity.

During the shutdown, regulators also found design flaws in Davis-Besse’s cooling system pumps, which led to prolonged repairs. FirstEnergy replaced the damaged reactor vessel head and overhauled the plant’s management.

Environmental groups cite concerns
The company asked the NRC on Feb. 12 for permission to restart the plant, saying the plant was now capable of being safely operated.

Two teams of NRC inspectors said at the February meeting that they saw marked improvement in plant operations and worker performance. Although the inspectors found widespread problems during a December review, they said none rose to the level of being a safety concern.

Environmental groups, though, questioned whether the plant was really committed to safety.

During the shutdown, some critics in Congress questioned whether the NRC bowed to pressure from FirstEnergy and allowed the utility to keep Davis-Besse operating despite concerns about the reactor lid.

The NRC has rejected allegations that it put profits ahead of safety.

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