THE record $5.45 million fine levied by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission against FirstEnergy Corp. for its near-catastrophic safety lapse in 2002 at the Davis-Besse nuclear power station is well deserved, but the action should not obscure or excuse the NRC's slipshod handling of the incident.
Indeed, by citing whistleblower Andrew Siemaszko, a former Davis-Besse engineer, for blame along with FirstEnergy, it appears that federal regulators are attempting to deflect responsibility for their own shortcomings.
Fortunately, a federal grand jury in Cleveland is investigating possible criminal violations, and all the facts may yet emerge.
In the meantime, there already is ample evidence, backed by a report from the NRC's inspector general, that officials of both the utility and regulatory agency allowed Davis-Besse to operate in a potentially unsafe fashion for two years due to severe corrosion in the head of its nuclear reactor.
The corrosion, which eventually ate away all but a fraction of an inch of the protective steel head, was discovered in 2000. However, the reactor was not shut down until a scheduled refueling operation in March, 2002.
Had the reactor head ruptured, a serious nuclear accident might have ensued because, inspections later indicated, faulty safety systems might not have been able to sufficiently cool the reactor.
The reactor head and cooling equipment had to be replaced at a cost of more than $600 million, idling Davis-Besse for two years and costing FirstEnergy millions of dollars in expensive replacement power.
Now the NRC contends that FirstEnergy withheld information on the safety of the reactor head from regulators. Mr. Siemaszko, however, presents a persuasive case that he is being made a scapegoat to protect top utility and NRC officials.
FirstEnergy should pay its fine without complaint or appeal. After all, company officials put profit before safety by keeping Davis-Besse in operation after the dangers of the reactor corrosion were well established.
But NRC officials also were complicit, and there ought to be some penalty for failing to protect the public from what could have been a disaster of frightening proportions.