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Published: Thursday, 9/4/2003

Davis-Besse flaws were well-known, lawsuit says

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FirstEnergy Corp. has known for years that Davis-Besse had design flaws that made the nuclear plant vulnerable to disaster, according to a South Carolina contractor who claims his firm was banned from the site in the fall of 1988 after he had documented alleged shortcomings in a progress report.

William N. Keisler, president of BKE, Inc., and Nuclear Maintenance Integration Consultants Corp., said in a lawsuit filed in Ottawa County Common Pleas Court that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was kept largely in the dark by FirstEnergy and one of its subsidiaries, Toledo Edison Co., which operated Davis-Besse.

Davis-Besse's work force historically has been reluctant to come forward because of retribution fears, according to the lawsuit. The NRC has said it will not tolerate that kind of intimidation, and that any lingering signs of it must be overcome before it will allow the plant to be restarted.

But the NRC has not been totally oblivious to the problems, either, according to the lawsuit. The suit claims several allegations Mr. Keisler has reported to the NRC's regional office near Chicago since 1992 have gone nowhere. The matter has been referred to the NRC's Office of Inspector General, according to a letter by William D. Travers, the agency's executive director for operations, to U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio).

“The whole issue of safety culture is obviously the highest, most dominant factor,” Mr. Keisler told The Blade last night during an interview in which he claimed the beleaguered plant's current state of affairs has, in large part, been shrouded in secrecy since he worked there from March, 1986, through October, 1988.

The lawsuit demands in excess of $25,000 for each of six counts listed against FirstEnergy, including alleged violations of state and federal whistleblower laws, breach of contract, fraud, negligence, and other infraction claims.

It said three members of Toledo Edison's senior management team - none of whom is still with FirstEnergy - objected to a 1987 report Mr. Keisler had prepared for the company while he was under contract. Called a preventive maintenance program review, the report outlined shortcomings with design issues, equipment, and labor-management relations after the June 9, 1985, temporary loss of auxiliary feed-water incident at Davis-Besse - at the time, the nation's closest brush with a nuclear accident since Three Mile Island in 1979.

That 1985 event has been surpassed by the near-hole in Davis-Besse's reactor head in 2002, the worst corrosion of its kind in U.S. nuclear history. A liner less than three-eighths of an inch thick was all that prevented a rupture and the formation of radioactive steam. In the last 18 months, while the plant has endured its record-setting outage, other design flaws have been addressed. The NRC now acknowledges that such problems could have allowed a meltdown.

He said his lawsuit is similar in concept but much broader than one he earlier had filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court. He said he withdrew that one in 1994, because of various developments.

Richard Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman, said the utility is aware of the new lawsuit.

Senior management didn't try to conceal information or downplay the veracity of Mr. Keisler's findings in the 1987 report, said Mr. Wilkins, who claimed the contractor was terminated simply because he didn't follow instructions.

“When we got the report, it did not have things in it we needed. That isn't to say some of the information wasn't good ... [but] we asked for a preventive maintenance report, and basically, we got something on how to treat world hunger,” Mr. Wilkins said.

Mr. Keisler said he managed the massive rebuilding of Davis-Besse's reactor coolant pumps in 1986, the last time the plant undertook that project. Those pumps circulate coolant through the reactor during normal operations.

There are four such pumps, each built to last 20 years. Barring an NRC order, FirstEnergy does not plan to refurbish more than two before restarting. Former engineer Andrew Siemaszko claimed in a U.S. Department of Labor whistleblower complaint this year he was fired because he insisted on having all four rebuilt.

FirstEnergy has rejected Mr. Siemaszko's claim. In June, the labor department dismissed his action. Mr. Siemaszko has appealed that ruling.



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