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[cdn-nucl-l] Nuclear reactor regulation problems
Article published Saturday, December 11, 2004
DAVIS-BESSE NUCLEAR PLANT
Criminal case over reactor taking shape
NRC allegedly was misled about facility's condition
By TOM HENRY <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>
blade staff writer
FirstEnergy Corp. yesterday said its nuclear subsidiary likely will be
indicted on criminal charges, accused of misleading federal regulators
about the condition of Davis-Besse's reactor head prior to the plant's
In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission,
FirstEnergy indicated that it received a letter yesterday from the
U.S. Attorney's Office in Cleveland stating that prosecutors assigned
to the case believe "it is likely that federal charges will be
returned against FENOC" by a federal grand jury in Cleveland that has
been reviewing evidence for more than a year.
FENOC is FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., the utility's nuclear
The filing, required under public disclosure laws, was made late
yesterday afternoon after the stock market closed.
FirstEnergy is the nation's fourth-largest investor-owned utility.
"We're going to fully cooperate with the process," said Todd
Schneider, a spokesman for the utility.
The letter singled out FENOC as a target of the investigation. It said
the probe includes "alleged false statements made to the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission in the fall of 2001," the utility said.
The allegations of false statements pertain to information FirstEnergy
provided to the regulatory commission about the status of
Davis-Besse's reactor head, Mr. Schneider said.
In the spring of 2001, the regulatory commission demanded information
from all of the nation's 103 nuclear plants after learning that
reactor-head nozzles at a South Carolina plant were capable of popping
off like champagne corks, allowing radioactive steam to form in
In the fall of 2001, Davis-Besse was the only plant not cleared by the
NRC of the nozzle-head problem.
FirstEnergy challenged a shutdown order as the NRC prepared to do an
inspection, the first of its kind in 14 years.
The regulatory commission backed off and allowed FirstEnergy to
operate Davis-Besse until Feb. 16, 2002 - six weeks longer than what
the shutdown order would have permitted but six weeks less than the
company's initial plan to operate the plant until March 31, 2002.
The shutdown revealed a much bigger problem than potential nozzle-head
cracks: Davis-Besse's reactor head itself was so corroded that it was
a mere two-tenths of an inch from blowing open. It was the worst
corrosion in U.S. nuclear history.
NRC officials eventually labeled it the nation's biggest safety lapse
since the Three Mile Island Unit 2 meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979,
in part because of doubts over whether emergency safety systems would
have worked once radioactive steam had formed.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), whose district is downwind from
Davis-Besse, became so incensed that he tried to get FirstEnergy's
operating license revoked.
The congressman told The Blade last night that he was pleased by the
possibility of FENOC being charged criminally. "They haven't been
telling the truth," he said.
He said the utility's history of mismanagement is one of the nation's
most underrated stories. "It's all about money in the end. It's not
about public safety," Mr. Kucinich said.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and Ohio's U.S. senators, Republicans
George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, could not be reached for comment.
David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer,
called the possibility of criminal charges "a welcome announcement, if
Activists hoped for indictments before the plant was allowed to resume
operation to give area residents more peace of mind. "I'm not going to
give anyone awards for timeliness, but [the NRC and the U.S.
Department of Justice apparently] compiled a strong case," Mr.
Paul Gunter, of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said he
hopes indictments go beyond the corporation and will include
responsible individuals. "Hopefully, the truth will win out, and
justice will prevail," he said.
Howard Whitcomb, who once worked at Davis-Besse and once was an NRC
resident inspector at a South Carolina nuclear plant, said indictments
could have a ripple effect on both the nuclear industry and the
Industry officials "would encourage others to be more forthright with
the regulators" if the indictments are handed down, Mr. Whitcomb, now
a Toledo lawyer, said.
"The NRC has to be more sensitive to being duped by what they're being
told," he added.
"The NRC has to ask those tough questions, and they have to be vigilant."
Criminal indictments against nuclear plant operators and utilities
that own them are uncommon, the NRC has said.
The regulatory commission authorized Davis-Besse to resume operation
March 8. The plant has operated at full power much of the time since
then. Its next planned outage for maintenance begins in mid-January.
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