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Published: Thursday, 8/16/2007

NRC lets utility off lightly in data case

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has effectively let FirstEnergy Corp. off with a warning for waiting three months before producing contradictory information the utility had gathered about the near-rupture of Davis-Besse s reactor head in 2002.

The utility could have lost its operating licenses for Davis-Besse, Perry nuclear plant east of Cleveland, and its twin-reactor nuclear complex in western Pennsylvania over the ordeal, because the regulatory agency saw potential for national safety implications in suppressed data that two FirstEnergy consultants had compiled.

Ultimately, the agency s concerns were resolved with no evidence of a national problem brewing.

Although no fine was imposed against FirstEnergy for its delay in sharing the information, NRC spokesman Viktoria Mitlyng said yesterday the agency has left open the door for monetary penalties if the utility s nuclear division, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., violates the new order.

The order requires the nuclear division to improve employee training in communications by Nov. 30 and to hire outside consultants to analyze the utility s progress in 2008 and 2009.

It also requires the company to revamp several internal procedures for deciding what types of information need to be shared instantly with the agency as well as to document its actions from the last several months in a root cause report for NRC inspectors.

They didn t violate any regulations. But we re taking a look at the bigger picture, if you will, because of the company s history, Ms. Mitlyng said.

The NRC made it clear since issuing a Demand for Information in May that it was irked by FirstEnergy s delay in releasing two documents that outside consultants prepared to help bolster the utility s $200 million insurance claim for damage to Davis-Besse s reactor head.

One of the reports suggested the incident was a fluke: that most of the reactor head s deterioration had occurred in the final three weeks before the plant s historic two-year outage began on Feb. 16, 2002.

The information contradicted earlier research by both FirstEnergy and the federal government, which had agreed in 2002 that Davis-Besse s safety was compromised by several years of neglected maintenance.

One of the reports was a 661-page document prepared by Exponent Failure Analysis Association, of Menlo Park, Calif., and Altran Solutions Corp., of Boston. It was completed for FirstEnergy on Dec. 15.

Soon after learning of the contradictory reports on March 20, the NRC ordered an assessment of the nation s 68 other nuclear plants with pressurized-water reactors like Davis-Besse s.

The agency wanted to find out if any were on the verge of having similar problems. None were.

The near-rupture of Davis-Besse s old reactor head is the closest the United States has come to having radioactive steam form in containment since the half-core meltdown of the Three Mile Island, Unit 2, nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. Davis-Besse s lid had deteriorated so much in one spot that nothing was left except a thin stainless steel liner that was cracking and starting to bulge.

Todd Schneider, FirstEnergy spokesman, said the NRC s order puts this issue behind us.

The measures we are putting into place will ensure such issues do not arise again, he said.

FirstEnergy was fined a record $33.5 million for lying to the government about Davis-Besse s operating status during the fall of 2001, including a record $28 million after a two-year criminal probe.

A federal grand jury that heard evidence between 2003 and 2005 concluded that FirstEnergy had misled the NRC about the plant as the agency was contemplating whether to execute the government s first safety-related shutdown order for a nuclear plant since 1987. FirstEnergy paid the fines without admitting or denying the accusations.

NRC officials drafted the 2001 shutdown order after learning about design similarities between Davis-Besse and a South Carolina nuclear plant where excessive leakage and unexpected reactor-nozzle cracks had been found.

A U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor said last year he thought that FirstEnergy had showed brazen arrogance for the manner in which it withheld information about Davis-Besse that fall.

That issue is now the focus of a case in U.S. District Court in Toledo that involves two former Davis-Besse engineers and an outside contractor charged with lying to the NRC. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

While the impact of yesterday s announcement on that case was not immediately known, a hearing is scheduled for Tuesday about expert witnesses.

The first trial, involving engineer Andrew Siemaszko, is tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-September, although Judge David Katz has said he is reluctant to proceed until the government tells him whether the Exponent report is junk science or not. Neither the Justice Department nor the NRC has done that.

The other two who were indicted, engineer David Geisen and contractor Rodney N. Cook, are to be tried together after Mr. Siemaszko.

Billie Pirner Garde, one of Mr. Siemaszko s attorneys, characterized yesterday s NRC order as a slap on the wrist for FirstEnergy.

Activists David Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Jim Riccio, of Greenpeace agreed. I was hoping for more. Basically saying, You haven t trained your staff improperly, doesn t get to the root of the problem, Mr. Riccio said. The NRC obviously missed an opportunity to send a message to FENOC management. It looks like they just took a pass.

Contact Tom Henry at:thenry@theblade.comor 419-724-6079.



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