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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

FirstEnergy accepts blame for Davis-Besse oversight

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FirstEnergy Corp. wants the government to know, conflicting reports and all, that the utility could very well have headed off the threat of radioactive steam forming in Davis-Besse's containment building in 2002 by at least two years.

That's if it had just followed its own program for detecting leaks and corrosion before the plant's 2000 refueling outage was completed, the utility said.

That theme was reiterated throughout a 63-page document FirstEnergy submitted Wednesday to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The utility said it took full responsibility for the failures that nearly caused the plant's reactor head to blow open in 2002.

The new document was in response to the NRC's demand for information issued May 14 over concerns about the utility's $200 million insurance claim.

Two FirstEnergy consultants in December suggested the Davis-Besse incident - one of the largest in U.S. nuclear history - was a fluke. Those reports counter earlier findings by the NRC and by FirstEnergy's own team that compiled the company's 2002 report into the cause of the incident.

The NRC determined the two FirstEnergy consultant reports did not have safety implications for the nation's other nuclear plants.

But last month, the NRC questioned why it took FirstEnergy three months before it turned over the documents. It also wanted to know if FirstEnergy endorsed the reports. The agency said it would decide whether to impose sanctions after it received FirstEnergy's response.

The sanctions could be as steep as revoking the utility's nuclear operating licenses for Davis-Besse and its Perry plant east of Cleveland and Beaver Valley in western Pennsylvania.

The agency yesterday announced a June 27 public meeting at suburban Washington headquarters to review the utility's response, signed under oath Wednesday night by Joseph Hagan, president and chief nuclear officer of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co.

The NRC released FirstEnergy's response to the public yesterday. Scott Burnell, NRC spokesman, said it should be available on the agency's Web site today.

Mr. Hagan said the utility's position does not contradict the two consultant reports because it does not agree with all aspects.

He said the utility was not required to provide the NRC with reports it is using for an insurance claim, though Mr. Hagan acknowledged that utility officials "have not been fully effective in communicating with the NRC upon receipt of the two reports."

Mr. Hagan said earlier correspondence from FirstEnergy "may have inappropriately given the impression that we endorsed all aspects of the Exponent Report, including that part of the assessment that conflicts with our Technical Root Cause Report."

"Specifically, we did not intend to create the impression that we could not have identified leakage prior to [the 2000 refueling outage] had we cleaned the [reactor] head," he wrote.

The Exponent report was a 661-page analysis by Exponent Failure Analysis Association of Menlo, Calif., and Altran Solutions Corp. of Boston.

Both are FirstEnergy consultants, as is Roger Mattson, a mechanical engineer and former NRC official with more than 40 years experience in nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Mr. Mattson issued a 96-page report.

The Exponent report, citing new techniques developed to analyze the event, claims much of Davis-Besse's corrosion occurred weeks before the Feb. 16, 2002, shutdown.

The Mattson report claims the utility, the NRC, and the nuclear industry could not have predicted what happened at Davis-Besse, even if the reactor head had been cleaned during its 2000 outage.

"Although we agree with some statements and conclusions, FENOC does not endorse the [Mattson] document in its entirety," Mr. Hagan said in his response.

FirstEnergy had forwarded the two reports to its insurance company, Nuclear Electrical Insurance Limited, in hopes of settling arbitration over the $200 million insurance claim.

FirstEnergy paid a $5.45 million civil fine in 2005 and a $28 million criminal fine in 2006 for withholding information about the event. Both were records.

David M. Uhlmann, chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, said at the time the $28 million fine was imposed that the utility showed "brazen arrogance" for deceiving the government about the plant's condition in the fall of 2001.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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