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Published: Monday, 9/22/2003

Ex-official at Besse links woes, managers

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joe Williams, Jr., who guided Davis-Besse back to service after it was crippled more than 18 months in the mid-1980s, has told The Blade he offered in 2002 to come back and help guide the troubled nuclear plant back into service again.

But FirstEnergy Corp. declined, saying it would keep the project “in-house,” according to Mr. Williams.

Now 81 and a resident of an independent living facility in Kennett Square, Pa., near Wilmington, Del., Mr. Williams said he is as strong in his conviction about what needs to be done at Davis-Besse as he was when he was paid $1,500 a day to straighten things out with his no-nonsense approach - one which, as recently as a congressional hearing last fall, has been recalled with admiration by some former employees.

“When I left, I had a crew of the best plant engineers,” Mr. Williams said while claiming that many of his efforts have been undone by a profit-over-safety mentality that some people feel has been the hallmark of the deregulation era of the 1990s.

“Like all plants, when they decided they wanted to make a cash cow out of [Davis-Besse], they neglected maintenance. If they would just learn that the only way you make money from a nuclear plant is by keeping it online. And the only way you keep it online is with safe production,” he said.

Richard Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman, said he is not aware of any discussions to bring back the retired vice admiral in 2002.

The hiring of Mr. Williams often has been cited as one of the key moves Toledo Edison Co., now a FirstEnergy subsidiary, made in response to its June 9, 1985, incident at Davis-Besse, when a series of pumps and valves failed and caused a temporary loss of coolant water to the reactor core.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has described that incident and the near-rupture of Davis-Besse's reactor head, discovered in March, 2002, as two of the nation's biggest nuclear episodes since the Three Mile Island accident of 1979. The two near-mishaps have resulted in the two longest outages in the plant's history, both in excess of 560 days.

Although the issues are different, Mr. Williams said he sees similarities. He said an underlying problem for years at Davis-Besse has been a general reluctance of employees to come forth with problems they find. Part of the problem these days is a greater reliance on contractors, he said.

“They need to rectify that right now. They need to get a staff that's company people and can do their jobs. Go to the expense of hiring good people,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Williams, a former commander of the U.S. Atlantic submarine fleet and the NATO submarine fleet, did just that in 1985. Shortly after he was brought in on June 18 of that year - a mere nine days after the near-accident occurred - he took the helm under the title of senior vice president in charge of nuclear operations and was given wide latitude in decisions. Among other things, Davis-Besse's manpower was expanded to 890 employees, up from 644. Salaries were boosted to attract talent. There was less reliance on contractors.

“They need to get back to what we were doing in 1987,” Mr. Williams said. After leaving in the spring of that year, he garnered a rate of $2,000 a day as an expert witness in court cases involving nuclear plants. Discussions about his coming back to Davis-Besse in 2002 never got serious enough for a fee to be discussed, he said.

But he told The Blade he was absolutely serious about returning. “I'm capable of coming out there and getting that [facility] back online,” he said.

Mr. Williams said the reactor head would not have become so dilapidated if he had heard about the containment air filters getting clogged by rust every other day, a telltale sign of a problem that had gone on for nearly 18 months.

FirstEnergy claimed it did not make a connection between rusty filters and a problem inside the containment building. Such filters are normally changed once a month.

“I would have shut the plant down. That's criminal. No system engineer could have possibly, possibly supported [con- tinued operation],” Mr. Williams said.

“I'll tell you one thing: If my filters had those problems, I would have ripped the insulation off that head [and looked for corrosion],” he added.

As it turned out, the corrosion - the worst in U.S. nuclear history - left a football-shaped cavity in the reactor head. All that was left in that spot was a liner that was less than three-eighths of an inch thick and not designed to hold back the reactor's enormous pressure.

Mr. Williams said he is familiar with a U.S. Department of Labor complaint filed by former Davis-Besse engineer Andrew Siemaszko, who has sought federal whistleblower protection on the grounds he was illegally fired by FirstEnergy in September, 2002. Mr. Siemaszko alleges his termination stems from his insistence on having expensive maintenance done on each of the plant's four reactor coolant pumps.

The Siemaszko case, dismissed in June and now on appeal, claims that FirstEnergy knowingly operated Davis-Besse for years with a severely rusted head. Among other things, the complaint states that scaffolding was removed one night during an outage in 2000 without Mr. Siemaszko's consent, abruptly ending his efforts to clean the head weeks before the job could be completed.

“I think the kid was right,” Mr. Williams said, referring to Mr. Siemaszko. “I don't know how many of them [in FirstEnergy] out there ought to be hung.”

Mr. Williams said he is interested in the outcome of an investigation into possible criminal activity being headed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Office of Investigations. The results, which have not yet been made public, could be turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution.

Certain FirstEnergy officials “ought to go to jail,” Mr. Williams said. “There have been enough deliberate acts of management in terms of denial,” he said.

Mr. Wilkins said FirstEnergy has addressed most of the concerns cited by the NRC, including problems with Davis-Besse's safety culture.

Recent surveys show employees weren't afraid to come forward but had been reluctant to do so because they felt management had for years stopped taking their concerns seriously, Mr. Wilkins said.

He said he can't comment on what would have occurred had Mr. Williams been in charge while the problems with the rusty air filters came to light.

“We noted in our root cause report that the air filters were one of several missed opportunities,” Mr. Wilkins said, saying plant officials simply failed to recognize it as a symptom of a problem.



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