The fate of two engineers accused of leading a cover-up at FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse nuclear facility in the fall of 2001 is in the hands of a jury in U.S. District Court in Toledo.
Deliberations in the case of David Geisen and Rodney N. Cook began late yesterday afternoon after attorneys spent almost seven hours summarizing testimony and evidence submitted at the trial, which began Oct. 1.
Mr. Geisen, now of Wisconsin, was a manager at Davis-Besse. Mr. Cook, a Tennessee contractor, had a long association with the plant. Andrew Siemaszko, now of Texas, was indicted with them as a co-conspirator. He is to be tried later.
Mr. Geisen and Mr. Cook are charged with lying to the government. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines.
The Justice Department's Richard Poole told the jury it's "pretty obvious the kind of facts they concealed and the kind of facts they withheld were what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was looking for."
Letters FirstEnergy produced in response to a nationwide bulletin the NRC issued in August, 2001, were based on data from Mr. Geisen's department. They were written by Mr. Cook.
All utilities operating pressurized-water reactors, such as Davis-Besse, were required to shut down or prove they were safe to operate beyond Dec. 31, 2001. The NRC was concerned about a nozzle crack discovered for the first time in the United States, on top of the Oconee 3 reactor in South Carolina.
FirstEnergy, which paid a record $33.5 million in fines, was the lone holdout.
Officials from the utility talked the NRC into a compromise that allowed FirstEnergy to keep the plant online until Feb. 16, 2002. Nuclear plants generate about $1 million a day in power.
Three weeks later, the NRC regretted what it had done. So much acid had leaked out of Davis-Besse's reactor that its vessel head had a six-inch-deep cavity and was about to burst.
The Justice Department's Christian Sticken yesterday described a situation that "was barreling toward catastrophe."
"There were red lights flashing everywhere," he said.
The near-rupture stunned the global nuclear industry, prompting industry reviews as far away as Europe and Japan.
Prosecutors claimed that Mr. Geisen and Mr. Cook knew Davis-Besse had too many leaks when FirstEnergy put the plant back into service after its 2000 refueling outage.
Mr. Poole cited an Aug. 8, 2001 e-mail from Prasoon Goyal of Toledo, a former Davis-Besse engineer who avoided prosecution by agreeing to testify.
Mr. Goyal's e-mail warned colleagues the NRC wanted plant-specific information. "This would create a difficult situation for us when they review our past inspection results," the e-mail stated.
Prosecutors said Mr. Cook was contracted by FirstEnergy to craft a deceptive response.
"Those serial letters concealed information, as alleged in the indictment. They contained false statements. We submit to you that David Geisen and Rod Cook knew it," Mr. Poole said.
Defense attorneys said the government's conspiracy theory is implausible. Neither defendant had anything to gain from keeping Davis-Besse online, they said.
Richard Hibey, one of Mr. Geisen's attorneys, accused the government of "importing all of this hindsight" and trying to present it as fact. The defendants followed procedures that were in effect at the time and their actions "should not be perverted into a lie, a cover-up, a covert act," he said.
"Why would he abandon his responsibility to science, his family, his employer, and the people [of Ohio] simply to keep Davis-Besse [online] another 45 days?" Mr. Hibey asked.
John Conroy, one of Mr. Cook's attorneys, said his client "had no dog in this fight."
"He's got 30 years in the business. He was making $150,000 a year. There is nothing in his contract that would have given him a raise, a promotion - anything," Mr. Conroy said. "He had no conceivable motive to do something like this, and every reason not to do so."
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.