Thursday, Jul 28, 2016
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Tom Henry

Problems add up for Davis-Besse

A quick Davis-Besse recap:

•Six months before the plant's historic shutdown on Feb. 16, 2002 - long before news broke about the horrible state of its old reactor head - FirstEnergy Corp. put in an order for a new head, a $200 million part. That had never been done before in U.S. nuclear history. The utility said it was tired of worrying about cracked reactor-head nozzles, the original focus. It said it was just as blown away, bad pun intended, as everyone about the much more serious issue of acid burning through all but a fraction of the lid and nearly allowing radioactive steam to form. It replaced the damaged head with one from a scuttled plant in Midland, Mich. The manufacturer couldn't make a new one fast enough.

•Days before that same shutdown, six of FirstEnergy's top execs dumped more than $3 million in company stock, some 85,000 shares. Notices were filed that nine other officers planned to sell 55,000 more shares. Almost no stock trading had been done by FirstEnergy execs since 1998. We were told the sudden frenzy was just a coincidence. Uh-huh.

•The stakes were raised when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission realized the plant's emergency coolant system might have failed 20 to 30 minutes into an accident. Design flaws since Davis-Besse went online in 1977, including a containment sump prone to clogging, had never been fixed. Classic hoof-in-mouth: Bill Beach, a former NRC regional administrator, told plant employees on March 21, 1997, that they were running "certainly one of the better, if not the best" plants, based on Davis-Besse's near-perfect evaluation back then. Little did anyone know the reactor head had started melting away at least a year earlier, in 1996.

•FirstEnergy whittled its backlog of mechanical issues. But before the plant resumed operation in 2004, it had to convince the NRC that Davis-Besse workers no longer feared retribution if they reported safety concerns. A one-of-a-kind industrial psychologist studied worker morale for months and concluded that fear had, indeed, been quite a problem.

•FirstEnergy admitted it jeopardized public safety by putting profits first. The NRC's own inspector general said likewise about the agency. The Government Accountability Office cited the NRC's lack of leadership in getting workers to come forward.

•FirstEnergy paid record civil and criminal fines totaling $33.5 million without admitting anything else. It kept silent even after a top U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor accused it of "brazen arrogance." He wanted the fines viewed as a get-tough message for any corporation thinking about lying to the government.

•Three midlevel engineers were indicted. Nobody from FirstEnergy's senior management. Nobody from the NRC, even though it had in its possession what an agency spokesman once described as an "incriminating photo." It may have headed off the whole mess if the evidence had ever been acted on.

•FirstEnergy is now trying to process a $200 million insurance claim, less than a third of its massive losses. It miffed the NRC by failing to prudently inform it of a 661-page consultant report that attempts to portray Davis-Besse's near-rupture as a fluke, a document that had potential implications for other nuclear plants. The NRC let the utility off with a slap on the wrist.

•The trial for two of the three engineers began Monday, with federal prosecutors telling the world they were liars who helped mastermind a cover-up. They and the third engineer, who will stand trial later, each face up to five years in prison and separate $250,000 fines if convicted.

That should just about get you caught up.

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