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As Fermi 2 emerges from outage, activist group renews fight

The Blade

Aug. 5--NEWPORT, Mich. -- DTE Energy's Fermi 2 nuclear plant is emerging from what appears to be the nation's longest refueling and maintenance outage of 2020, a type of shutdown that normally lasts about a month but in this case has dragged on for nearly five months.

Blame the coronavirus pandemic and other work-related issues.

Meanwhile, an activist group has renewed its effort to get the plant's 20-year license extension nullified. It is appealing last month's denial by a three-judge hearing tribunal.

Located about 30 miles north of Toledo along the western Lake Erie coast in northern Monroe County's Frenchtown Township, Fermi 2 began to slowly ascend in power earlier this week.

Its reactor was listed in online U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records as being at 19 percent power Tuesday morning.

That's just shy of the roughly 20 percent power level needed to synchronize a nuclear plant to North America's largest electricity grid, one that serves Ohio, Michigan, 11 other states, and parts of Canada and is operated by Pennsylvania-based PJM Interconnection.

A national magazine that covers the nuclear industry said Fermi 2's outage is the nation's longest this year. The NRC could neither confirm nor deny that, stating that it doesn't keep such records handy.

The delay was not exclusively because of the coronavirus pandemic, but DTE spokesman Stephen Tait confirmed the virus complicated efforts, starting with an outbreak shortly after the maintenance outage began March 21.

"The pandemic caused some delays, including at the beginning of May when we temporarily stopped work so we could provide tests for employees," he said. "We provided testing to promote the health and well-being of the work force."

Mr. Tait said the plant will undergo a series of checks, safety tests, and other activities during the startup process.

DTE twice applied for and received NRC authorization for temporary fitness-for-duty rules to do extensive maintenance during the outage. Such rules are normally in effect to guard against worker fatigue, much like the shift time limits and rest requirements for truck drivers and airline pilots. The latest extension expires Aug. 10.

Viktoria Mitlyng, a senior NRC spokesman, said all nuclear safety activities have been completed per commission requirements.

"Our resident inspectors have monitoring the work at the plant to make sure our requirements are met," she said. "As far as the NRC is concerned, there are no current safety issues that would prevent the plant from going back online."

She said Fermi 2 met its commitment to remove degraded coating from the submerged portion of its pressure suppression chamber, also known as the torus, and to replace it with new, qualified coatings.

"Our regional coating specialist and Fermi resident inspectors verified DTE's methods and activities throughout the process," Ms. Mitlyng said.

The problem, identified in 1989, has lingered for 31 years.

One of the concerns was that loose paint chips in drains could make it difficult for vital reactor coolant pumps to move water in the event of an emergency.

The license challenge is coming from an activist group called Citizens' Resistance at Fermi 2, or CRAFT.

Spokesman Jessie Pauline Collins has appealed a decision by the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, a three-member panel that oversees NRC action, to the agency's governing board.

Last month, it rejected CRAFT's request for a hearing on the safety of Boraflex neutron absorbers Fermi 2 has in its spent fuel pool.

Evidence as far back as 1987 shows they can dissolve over time, leaving plants vulnerable.

Ms. Collins claims they are not safe enough to last the life of the plant, which is now authorized to keep operating into 2045. The plant's original, 40-year license was good into 2025, but was extended 20 years by the NRC in 2016.

"The appeal of the ASLB's decision is going to the Commission for review," Ms. Mitlyng said.

DTE has asked to use a less-expensive remedy than the one it earlier agreed to install.

"We respect the process the NRC provides for such matters and will continue to follow the regulator's requests during this process," Mr. Tait said of CRAFT's appeal.


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