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FirstEnergy nuclear chief is retiring


John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporter

FirstEnergy Corp. yesterday said that the head of its nuclear operating company had "elected to retire."

Robert Saunders, 60, president and chief nuclear officer of the division, will officially retire in February, after three years in the job, the company said.

But the transition is already under way, said his successor, Gary Leidich, the nuclear division's executive vice president, who will be named president and chief nuclear officer on Sept. 1.

Saunders' decision to leave FirstEnergy was "absolutely not" connected to the problem-plagued Davis-Besse nuclear plant, company spokesman Todd Schneider said.

If that were the case, he would have left months ago, Schneider said, when other Davis-Besse managers were disciplined or resigned. Besides, he said, the division's three other nuclear reactors, one at Perry and two in Pennsylvania, have done well under Saunders' leadership.

"The problems at Davis-Besse started before Bob Saunders arrived," Schneider said. "When it was discovered, he demonstrated focused leadership, took responsibility and laid out a plan."

Davis-Besse has been down for extensive repairs for 17 months. The reactor head had to be replaced because admittedly shoddy maintenance allowed a coolant leak to eat a hole in the original lid over several years. The company's own analysis presented to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that production had been put ahead of safety.

Saunders, along with Davis-Besse managers, convinced the NRC in November 2001 to allow the plant to delay an inspection of the reactor's head for about six weeks. The company had wanted to push back the shutdown and examination by three months.

What the company told the NRC during the fall of 2001 is the target of an investigation by the NRC's criminal division.

In December, Leidich told financial analysts that the company expected the inquiry to be done by early this year. He also said the company wanted it done before it sought permission to restart the reactor. Yesterday, he said that would not be necessary.

"It would be nice, but I don't see it as a prerequisite," Leidich said in an interview. "We now know what we have to do to get to restart, and we are making great progress."

He said he intends to manage FirstEnergy's four reactors as a fleet rather than as individual power plants. The nuclear division also will forge strong ties with industry groups and other utilities to make sure the best practices are followed here, he said. The NRC has noted that Davis-Besse had operated in isolation.

FirstEnergy brought back Leidich a year ago from an industry research group, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. He started his career with the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. in 1974 as an engineer and held several positions until he left FirstEnergy in 1998 for the research group.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:; 216-999-4138

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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