Six years later, it remains an unsettling question: How much was covered up about the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in the fall of 2001?
Hadn't the nuclear industry learned its lesson from the panic that ensued in March, 1979, when half of the Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor core melted near Harrisburg, Pa.? And where was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government agency that's supposed to protect the public?
Those and other questions could be answered in the coming weeks, with the first of two criminal trials of former Davis-Besse workers starting in U.S. District Court this morning in downtown Toledo.
Engineers David Geisen, Rodney N. Cook, and Andrew Siemaszko each face up to five years in prison and separate $250,000 fines if convicted on charges of lying to the government about Davis-Besse's dangerous condition that fall.
Each is accused of having a role in assembling paperwork that FirstEnergy Corp. lawyers and executives used over a three-month period in late 2001 to make the utility's case for keeping the plant operating. NRC staff members had suspected something was amiss with the plant, which is 30 miles east of Toledo and along the Lake Erie shoreline. They wanted it shut down for inspection no later than Dec. 31, 2001.
Three weeks after the plant was finally shut down on Feb. 16, 2002, officials learned they may have dodged a huge radioactive accident - if not a catastrophe - by a mere two-tenths of an inch, the width of a pencil eraser.
That's all that was left of the nuclear reactor's massive steel lid in one footprint-shaped area when the real threat was discovered on March 6, 2002. Officials learned that uncontrolled acid had burned through everything but the stainless steel liner. And that liner was starting to crack and bulge. Follow-up lab tests showed it was weeks away from bursting, if that.
Mr. Geisen, a former FirstEnergy employee, and Mr. Cook, a contractor, are being prosecuted together in the first trial. Mr. Siemaszko, another former FirstEnergy employee, will be tried separately later. Both trials are expected to last about a month.
While the trio face upcoming trials, several watchdogs have questioned why the U.S. Department of Justice, in consultation with NRC investigators, did not go after the FirstEnergy senior management team that went to Washington to fight the NRC's 2001 shutdown order, the first of its kind since 1987.
The order had been approved by agency lawyers. But Sam Collins, the NRC's nuclear reactor regulation director at the time, refused to execute it.
Records show his decision came on Nov. 21, 2001, after he had met that day with Robert Saunders, then president of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., the firm's nuclear unit.
Nuclear plants generate nearly $1 million a day in power.
Mr. Collins, now administrator of the NRC's Northeast region, has said since then - something many other NRC officials have echoed - that Davis-Besse would have been shut down immediately if FirstEnergy had only provided the agency with complete and accurate information. He did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
Sandy Buchanan, Ohio Citizen Action executive director, said FirstEnergy top executives should be held accountable for the cover-up.
No FirstEnergy executives were implicated when the Justice Department announced a Cleveland grand jury's findings on Jan. 20, 2006. No NRC officials have been disciplined for their roles, either, at least none whom the agency has revealed.
David M. Uhlmann, former chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, said back then that FirstEnergy showed "brazen arrogance" and "breached the public trust" by withholding information.
He said it was fined a record amount - altogether the penalties totaled $33.5 million - to send a message to America's 104 nuclear plants that they'd better not be caught lying to the government.
But what kind of a message did the indictments send to workers in the notoriously tight-lipped nuclear industry?
Prasoon Goyal, another former FirstEnergy employee implicated by the grand jury, worked out a deal to avoid prosecution by offering to testify against the three suspects. Prosecutors have said they expect him to be a key to their cases.
But Paul Blanch, whose work as a whistleblower at the once-beleaguered Millstone nuclear complex in Connecticut helped inspire a 1996 Time magazine cover story that led to nationwide reform, said there's no question the trio has been set up as fall guys.
He said the indictments have already had a chilling effect on America's nuclear work force.
The NRC has a long history of coziness with the industry, something documented in a report for former U.S. Sen. John Glenn (D., Ohio) in the 1980s.
And, Mr. Blanch said, the NRC is not shy about going after those it perceives as troublemakers, despite how it publicly encourages workers to come forward with safety concerns.
"Guilty or not guilty, it's the same message going out," Mr. Blanch said. "They clearly, in my mind, want to send a message to those who bring safety concerns that this is a career-ending move."
NRC officials have denied that allegation. The three federal prosecutors trying the criminal cases declined to be interviewed, as did Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman.
But questions persist, especially in light of a U.S. Department of Labor complaint Mr. Siemaszko filed on Feb. 18, 2003, when he went public with his story - a complaint that was eventually dismissed.
According to that 24-page document, FirstEnergy Corp. knew as early as 1998 that acid was leaking from inside Davis-Besse's reactor, yet the utility put off doing maintenance and ultimately fired Mr. Siemaszko for insisting on work that had to be done.
Mr. Siemaszko said he was appalled by the plant's condition from the day he was hired in 1999. He said he insisted on a complete cleaning of the head during the 2000 refueling outage. That would have been about a six-week job. But in less than 24 hours, scaffolding was taken down without his consent, and the plant was prepared for restart, he said.
Mr. Siemaszko produced photographs depicting the old reactor head with lava-like streaks of rust from refueling outages in 1998 and 2000. The NRC has acknowledged the latter was turned over to one of its ex-inspectors - and that the inspector failed to act on it or bring it to the agency's attention.
Mr. Siemaszko's signature is on paperwork that led to the 2000 restart, though. He has said that he signed it only because he feared losing his job if he didn't.
"None of those three [defendants], from what I've seen, did anything worse than Sam Collins did when he allowed that plant to keep operating," said David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer. "If justice prevails and the three are exonerated, it leaves us where we've been for the past five-plus years. We knew where the problems were. Davis-Besse was bigger than these three people."
Davis-Besse remained shut down for two years as other issues surfaced, even design flaws that had not been fixed in the plant's 25-year history. The plant began operating in 1977.
One of the key issues that kept it offline from 2002 to 2004 was what the NRC had described as a poor "safety culture." Largely undefined, it's essentially a workplace atmosphere. The NRC said it needed FirstEnergy to prove workers would be more forthcoming about reporting safety issues before the utility would be allowed to resume operation.
To Mr. Blanch, now a nuclear consultant who has testified before Congress, the NRC's safety culture program is "a facade."
He said it's been widely known for years that if you become too high-profile about safety issues in the nuclear industry "you can kiss your career good-bye."
Ms. Buchanan said Mr. Siemaszko's ordeal "will certainly have a chilling effect on other nuclear industry whistle-blowers."
Todd Schneider, FirstEnergy spokesman, disagreed.
"Our employees are free to bring up any concerns they may have to their supervisors," he said. "We have made wholesale changes at the plant since it was shut down, and they've proven to be effective. The plant's running safely and reliably."
Howard Whitcomb, a Toledo lawyer who is a onetime NRC resident inspector and a former engineer at both Davis-Besse and DTE Energy's Fermi 2 nuclear plant north of Monroe, said workers take a risk affixing their signatures to any document.
"The message [of these trials] is if you want to avoid criminal prosecution, don't sign anything," he said. "If you believe you were right as an engineer, you have to stand by your conviction, even if that means the loss of your job."
Mr. Whitcomb said it's possible that higher-ranking FirstEnergy officials will be implicated by information that comes out during the trials.
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.