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Court told of failed bid to shut Davis-Besse

Attorneys yesterday spent nearly six hours grilling a Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffer who fought to get Davis-Besse shut down in the fall of 2001 as a safeguard for northern Ohio, only to have his senior management override the recommendation he and his colleagues made so that FirstEnergy Corp. would not take a financial hit.

Allen Hiser, now chief of the NRC's steam generator, tube integrity, and chemical engineering branch, said he wasn't buying FirstEnergy's assertion that Davis-Besse's old reactor head was properly cleaned and inspected during the plant's previous refueling outage in 2000.

At one point, he went so far as to say there "could have been sinister motives" involved with FirstEnergy's relentless effort to keep the plant operating until its next planned refueling outage on March 31, 2002.

His comments were made during the second day of a criminal trial involving two former Davis-Besse workers, engineers David Geisen and Rodney N. Cook. Those two and another engineer, Andrew Siemaszko, face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine each if convicted on charges of lying to the government. Mr. Siemaszko is to be tried later. The jury trial is being heard in U.S. District Court in Toledo, with Judge David Katz presiding.

Nuclear plants generate nearly $1 million a day in power.

Davis-Besse was one of 12 deemed in 2001 as being highly prone to have reactor-head nozzles crack in a 360-degree pattern.

That list, made for the NRC by the industry-approved Electric Power Research Institute, came weeks after the first such cracks in America's nuclear history had been found at a South Carolina reactor.

FirstEnergy gave the least cooperation. So the NRC took the rare step of preparing a mandatory shutdown order, something it had not done since 1987.

The order would have compelled FirstEnergy to shut down Davis-Besse for inspections no later than Dec. 31, 2001. Instead, NRC senior management - after hearing FirstEnergy's financial pleas - set it aside and compromised with a Feb. 16, 2002 shutdown date.

What the NRC's senior brass didn't know was that an agency employee in its Midwest regional office near Chicago had been provided the infamous "red photo" - one from the 2000 outage that showed Davis-Besse's old reactor head with lava-like streams of rust.

That employee did not bring it to anyone else's immediate attention and, to this day, has not been disciplined.

Mr. Hiser, a staffer in the NRC's materials and chemical engineering branch at the time, said that photograph depicted a "disgusting situation" at Davis-Besse.

He said it could have been the "smoking gun" for an early shutdown if the agency's headquarters in suburban Washington had known about it.

"I would have shown this to the upper level management. My expectation is that Davis-Besse would have been shut down by the end [of 2001], if not immediately," Mr. Hiser said.

Mr. Geisen was involved in a November, 2001, meeting at the NRC's headquarters between FirstEnergy and agency officials, including Mr. Hiser. So were Davis-Besse's former vice president, Guy Campbell, two other plant officials, and a consultant from Paris-based Framatome ANP, a global nuclear supplier with a U.S. complex in Virginia.

Mr. Hiser said he felt his agency was being lobbied to hold off on the shutdown order. He said he pushed for it, and provided NRC attorneys many of the facts and technical assistance for it.

Paperwork that was submitted then and at various other junctures during the three-month negotiation period said Davis-Besse's old reactor head had been cleaned and was fully visible through weepholes or "mouseholes" in the reactor's service structure.

The company had concluded that Davis-Besse was safe when it was not, Mr. Hiser said.

The reactor head was only partially cleaned. So much boric acid had leaked from it that boron encrusted the lid, clogging many of the holes designed for visual access.

Some had chunks so thick that workers could not maneuver a pole-fitted camera through the holes, according to testimony.

The jury saw clips from a 2000 video that showed heavy concentrations of boron left on the head before it was put back into service. The boron came from boric acid that leaked from the reactor.

At the meeting, Mr. Geisen led NRC officials to believe they wouldn't find anything worthwhile on that video, Mr. Hiser said.

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 wasn't prepared for what was found on March 6, 2002: A football-shaped cavity in the reactor head where acid had escaped from the reactor and pooled up.

It burned away six inches of carbon steel and exposed the reactor head's stainless steel liner, which was only two-tenths of an inch thick in that area. It had started to bulge and crack.

If it had blown - something which lab tests later said could have happened at any time - radioactive steam would have formed in containment for the first time in the U.S. since 1979, when half of Three Mile Island Unit 2's reactor core melted near Harrisburg, Pa.

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

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