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Published: Saturday, 12/11/2004

Criminal case over reactor taking shape

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FirstEnergy Corp. yesterday said its nuclear subsidiary likely will be indicted on criminal charges, accused of misleading federal regulators about the condition of Davis-Besse's reactor head prior to the plant's 2002 shutdown.

In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, FirstEnergy indicated that it received a letter yesterday from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cleveland stating that prosecutors assigned to the case believe "it is likely that federal charges will be returned against FENOC" by a federal grand jury in Cleveland that has been reviewing evidence for more than a year.

FENOC is FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., the utility's nuclear subsidiary.

The filing, required under public disclosure laws, was made late yesterday afternoon after the stock market closed.

FirstEnergy is the nation's fourth-largest investor-owned utility.

"We're going to fully cooperate with the process," said Todd Schneider, a spokesman for the utility.

The letter singled out FENOC as a target of the investigation. It said the probe includes "alleged false statements made to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the fall of 2001," the utility said.

The allegations of false statements pertain to information FirstEnergy provided to the regulatory commission about the status of Davis-Besse's reactor head, Mr. Schneider said.

In the spring of 2001, the regulatory commission demanded information from all of the nation's 103 nuclear plants after learning that reactor-head

nozzles at a South Carolina plant were capable of popping off like champagne corks, allowing radioactive steam to form in containment structures.

In the fall of 2001, Davis-Besse was the only plant not cleared by the NRC of the nozzle-head problem.

FirstEnergy challenged a shutdown order as the NRC prepared to do an inspection, the first of its kind in 14 years.

The regulatory commission backed off and allowed FirstEnergy to operate Davis-Besse until Feb. 16, 2002 - six weeks longer than what the shutdown order would have permitted but six weeks less than the company's initial plan to operate the plant until March 31, 2002.

The shutdown revealed a much bigger problem than potential nozzle-head cracks: Davis-Besse's reactor head itself was so corroded that it was a mere two-tenths of an inch from blowing open. It was the worst corrosion in U.S. nuclear history.

NRC officials eventually labeled it the nation's biggest safety lapse since the Three Mile Island Unit 2 meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, in part because of doubts over whether emergency safety systems would have worked once radioactive steam had formed.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), whose district is downwind from Davis-Besse, became so incensed that he tried to get FirstEnergy's operating license revoked.

The congressman told The Blade last night that he was pleased by the possibility of FENOC being charged criminally. "They haven't been telling the truth," he said.

He said the utility's history of mismanagement is one of the nation's most underrated stories. "It's all about money in the end. It's not about public safety," Mr. Kucinich said.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and Ohio's U.S. senators, Republicans George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, could not be reached for comment.

David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer, called the possibility of criminal charges "a welcome announcement, if somewhat late."

Activists hoped for indictments before the plant was allowed to resume operation to give area residents more peace of mind. "I'm not going to give anyone awards for timeliness, but [the NRC and the U.S. Department of Justice apparently] compiled a strong case," Mr. Lochbaum said.

Paul Gunter, of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said he hopes indictments go beyond the corporation and will include responsible individuals. "Hopefully, the truth will win out, and justice will prevail," he said.

Howard Whitcomb, who once worked at Davis-Besse and once was an NRC resident inspector at a South Carolina nuclear plant, said indictments could have a ripple effect on both the nuclear industry and the regulatory commission.

Industry officials "would encourage others to be more forthright with the regulators" if the indictments are handed down, Mr. Whitcomb, now a Toledo lawyer, said.

"The NRC has to be more sensitive to being duped by what they're being told," he added.

"The NRC has to ask those tough questions, and they have to be vigilant."

Criminal indictments against nuclear plant operators and utilities that own them are uncommon, the NRC has said.

The regulatory commission authorized Davis-Besse to resume operation March 8. The plant has operated at full power much of the time since then. Its next planned outage for maintenance begins in mid-January.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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