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A behind-the-scenes look at Davis-Besse

By Tom Jackson • Jun 5, 2019 at 1:00 PM

OAK HARBOR — Inside the turbine hall at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, it’s so hot it feels like Texas in August. It’s so loud, visitors are handed earplugs.

Huge pipes are carrying large amounts of steam into the hall. The steam drives a turbine shaft 200-feet long, which powers a generator producing 900 megawatts, enough power to keep the lights on for 900,000 Ohio homes.

But the power station could go cold and quiet within about a year, by May 2020, if last-ditch efforts fail to keep it and the Perry nuclear plant open.

Ohio lawmakers are debating House Bill 6, which would provide funding to keep the two plants open. The measure passed the House Wednesday, sending it to the Senate for action. 

If Davis-Besse shuts down, hundreds of good-paying jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity will disappear, and it’s not just Ottawa County and the greater Oak Harbor community that will be affected.                                                                 

The plant supports 600 employees paid an average salary of about $80,000 a year, including 300 Ottawa County employees but also 125 who live in Erie County, said Doug Huey, director of site performance improvement. That’s a payroll of about $10 million for Erie County, he said. In addition to the 600 First Energy jobs, Davis-Besse supports another 100 contract workers, who do tasks such as cutting grass and clearing away snow.

To get a look at what plant operations are like, two Sandusky Register staffers recently took a tour, getting an inside look at much of the station.         

A look inside                                       

Davis-Besse began operating in 1977 during the Jimmy Carter administration and sits on a 954-acre site in between Ohio 2 and Lake Erie. The power station uses only a small portion of the site; 732 acres, the Navarre Marsh, is a wetlands area that supports birds and other wildlife and is managed by Davis-Besse and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Uranium 238 trucked to the power station serves as fuel for a nuclear reactor inside a circular building on the Davis-Besse campus. The cooling tower, 493 feet high and visible for miles and the site’s most prominent feature, simply cools non-radioactive lake water and has little to do with actual plant operations.

Davis-Besse is a pressurized nuclear reactor. The reactor heats water inside a closed loop that constantly circulates.

The water inside those pipes, which is radioactive and pressurized so that it will not boil, in turn, heats a second closed loop of water, which is not radioactive. It’s the water from the secondary loop that generates the steam that powers the generator.

A third stream of water taken from Lake Erie cools the second loop of water. The lake water then goes to the cooling tower, where vapor comes out of the top and other water condenses and runs down the side. The cooling tower prevents the reactor from having to put hot water into Lake Erie.

The nuclear plant is run from a control room by operators who monitor the reactor, the circulation of hot water and steam, and other indicators. Several usually are on duty, with a minimum of one supervisor and two operators present 24 hours a day.

Jobs and economy

Many jobs will be lost if the plant closes.

“When it closes, there’s no longer a need for 600 people here,” Huey said.

A handful of people would remain on the site, but most would take their talents to other nuclear plants, he said, and the ripple effects of the closure would cascade through the local economy, including homes being sold and large amounts of tax revenue for local schools and governments being lost.

Davis-Besse and the Perry nuclear plant near Cleveland provide about 14 percent of Ohio’s electrical power, with solar and wind power accounting for only a small fraction of the state’s power. Closing the plants will add to the amount of carbon dioxide blamed for helping to cause climate change, Huey said.

“If nuclear goes away, it’s not going to be replaced by solar or wind,” he said. “It will be replaced by natural gas. If you believe in climate change, there’s only one major source of green energy.”

Solar and wind can’t really take off until battery technology improves and large amounts of electrical power can be stored when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, he said.

Safety and security

Davis-Besse has had incidents in the past that raised questions about safety.

In 2002, a hole described as about the size of a football was found in the reactor vessel head, and the plant was shut down for two years by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

That was a significant issue and resulted in important changes across the nuclear industry in how reactor vessel heads were dealt with, Huey said.

The reactor was shut down for about three days in May 2015 after steam leaked from the turbine building.

“That’s not a serious issue,” Huey said.

As it was from the steam used to power the turbines, it was not radioactive steam, and there was no threat to the public, he said.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group for nuclear energy, Davis-Besse is currently meeting NRC safety standards.

Security is important at the plant.

Visitors must go through a machine that checks for explosives and a metal detector; must use badges to go through several gates; and must stay with an escort at all times. They go through a security check before they can obtain badges to visit. Huge concrete blocks were installed after the terrorist attack in 2001 to keep anyone from ramming a vehicle to gain access to the power plant.

A Register photographer was told she could photograph anything she liked having to do with power production but could not take pictures of security equipment or personnel.

“We don’t want our security measures publicized,” Huey said.

If efforts to save the plant succeed, it is licensed to stay in operation until 2037. When that deadline nears, First Energy could decide whether to see an additional license extension.

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