Davis-Besse ex-workers called liars as trial begins


Opening arguments began yesterday in the first of two criminal trials involving former Davis-Besse workers with federal prosecutors accusing defendants David Geisen and Rodney N. Cook of being liars who were out to trick, scheme, or otherwise mislead the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the degree to which acid leaked from the plant s nuclear reactor in the fall of 2001.

Tom Ballentine, one of three U.S. Department of Justice attorneys presenting the government s case, told the 12-member jury and four alternates that the defendants simply lied in documents the NRC used for its internal debate over whether the plant needed to be shut down immediately for critical safety inspections.

Defense attorneys countered by saying their defendants are being used as scapegoats.

Ladies and gentlemen, David Geisen is here today because the NRC was embarrassed by what happened at Davis-Besse, said one of Mr. Geisen s attorneys, Andrew Wise. This was not an investigation to figure out what happened, but who we can blame.

The case is being heard in U.S. District Court in Toledo, with Judge David Katz presiding.

Ten women and six men are being presented the evidence.

Mr. Geisen, Mr. Cook, and a third defendant, Andrew Siemaszko, who will be tried separately, face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine apiece if convicted on charges of lying to the government. The defendants are engineers.

Mr. Cook, a Tennessee contractor, was the only one not employed by FirstEnergy Corp. s nuclear subsidiary, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co.

Radioactive areas of a nuclear plant are normally inspected at least once every two years when reactors are off-line for refueling, thereby minimizing the threat of exposure to workers.

Davis-Besse, according to yesterday s testimony, got the attention of regulators during the last three months of 2001 when FirstEnergy was cryptic about the condition of the plant s old reactor head.

The NRC wanted more information about 69 steel nozzles implanted in the lid. The nozzles are there to protect equipment that drives the reactor s control rods. The rods control the pace in which nuclear fission occurs.

Circular cracks had been discovered in those type of nozzles for the first time in the United States a few months earlier at the Oconee Unit 3 reactor in South Carolina.

Circular cracks weaken nozzles so much they can pop off like champagne corks under a reactor s enormous operating pressure of 2,200 pounds per square inch.

It could physically blow the penetration out of the vessel head, Brian Sheron, the NRC s associate licensing director in 2001 and the current chief of its research arm, testified.

That would lead to the first stage of a major accident, the formation of radioactive steam.

Davis-Besse was operating at 605 degrees in 2001, hotter than any other U.S. nuclear plant. It was known to have design flaws that had never been fixed since the plant went online in 1977 as well as some minor flange leakage on its reactor head.

But the NRC wanted some assurance there wasn t a bigger problem brewing, Mr. Sheron said.

The NRC s legal team had approved a rare shutdown order, which Mr. Sheron characterized as the agency s trump card if FirstEnergy continued to resist.

The utility wanted to keep Davis-Besse operating until its scheduled refueling outage was to begin March 31, 2002. The NRC wanted it shut down no later than Dec. 31, 2001.

Among those pressuring the agency was Bob Saunders, former president and chief nuclear officer of FirstEnergy s nuclear subsidiary.

He assured us he would not operate it unless he was convinced it would be safe, Mr. Sheron testified.

A key factor in the two trials will be the jury s interpretation of how well the old reactor head had been cleaned during the 2000 refueling outage, the last one before the near-rupture was discovered in 2002.

Attorneys said that will show how well FirstEnergy, which has admitted to the NRC that it put profits ahead of safety, did maintenance before putting the plant back into service.

Terry Tabbert, a Davis-Besse employee for 20 years, testified that acid leaks caused huge chunks of boron to crystallize like a rock on the reactor head in the shape of popcorn.

Workers tried to dislodge the hardened boron with metal bars in 2000. He said they did their best, but were largely unsuccessful and that the plant was put back into operation with lots of boron still clinging to the reactor head.

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