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Head of FirstEnergy nuclear unit steps aside

FirstEnergy's Nuclear Operating Co., operator of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Oak Harbor, Ohio, will soon have a new man at the helm.

Robert F. Saunders, 60, current president and chief nuclear officer of FENOC, has “elected to retire” in February, 2004, according to a FirstEnergy statement released yesterday.

He will be replaced by the company's current executive vice president, Gary Leidich, who was hired in June, 2002.

Mr. Leidich received both his bachelor and master of science degrees in engineering from the University of Toledo, and worked as an engineer for a decade before moving into management in 1984.

Independent industry analysts said they do not get the sense that Mr. Saunders' retirement has anything to do with recent problems at the Davis-Besse plant - which was shut down in February, 2002 due to reactor head problems - primarily because Mr. Saunders will continue to oversee operations for seven months.

“If [the retirement] were effective immediately, then that would raise eyebrows,” said one industry analyst who asked not to be identified. “Mr. Saunders had a contract. That contract is up in February. That's it.”

Agreeing is David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists - a nonprofit watchdog group that has been closely monitoring FirstEnergy.

“Certainly Davis-Besse isn't something you put on your resume, but Mr. Saunders was in charge of much more than that plant.”

FENOC operates three nuclear power plants, including Davis-Besse, the Perry plant close to Cleveland, and the Beaver Valley station outside Pittsburgh.

When Mr. Saunders arrived at FirstEnergy in February, 2000, he did so with one key objective: to consolidate and centralize the policies and procedures at each of the three plants into a single, “fleet” format of operation.

Mr. Leidich has been involved in the design of the centralized policies at FENOC - specifically those related to safety, his “top priority.”

In that position, Mr. Leidich visited “nearly every single one” of the 103 nuclear power plants in the United States, as well as plants in Spain and Great Britain, in search of effective safety and performance models.

“No nuclear plant is an island,” Mr. Leidich said. “We all have things to learn from each other. Other power plants have certainly learned a lot from Davis-Besse.”

Officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - the agency in charge of overseeing FirstEnergy's power plants - had no comment on the appointment.

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