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Besse engineer says warnings ignored

02/19/03

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

A former lead engineer at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant charged yesterday that he would have found the leaks in the reactor years before rust ate through the lid had the company - and federal authorities - just listened to him.

Instead, federal inspectors appeared to ignore his warnings, and FirstEnergy Corp.'s nuclear operating company, which owns the plant, thwarted his efforts since 1999 to clean leaking coolant laced with boric acid from the lid, said engineer Andrew Siemaszko of Port Clinton.

The company finally fired him early last fall. That sent a "chilling" message to other workers, said Siemaszko in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, when he refused to back down in a dispute with top plant managers about the questionable safety of reactor coolant pumps they postponed refurbishing.

The point of contention was whether the plant needed to immediately rebuild all four of the reactor's 900-horsepower coolant pumps to replace leaking gaskets, or just two of them.

Siemaszko - and other staff engineers above him along with the pump's manufacturer - pushed for all four to be rebuilt because they had a history of leaking. Also, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had warned as early as 1988 that even small leaks could corrode the bolts that hold the pumps together and lead to a major accident, the suit claims.

But Davis-Besse Chief Operating Officer Lew Myers decided that rebuilding the two pumps that are the most difficult to get at would have to wait until later, the complaint alleges, because they were in a hurry to get the plant back on line.

"Repairs of all four pumps would have required significant time and money. . . . The repairs would have extended through the Dec. 7 [2000] deadline then set by [the company] as a goal for Davis-Besse restart," the suit states.

The suit tries to undercut FirstEnergy's insistence that it will not restart the plant until it is safe, but a Davis-Besse spokesman yesterday had no comment, except to say that Siemaszko had no grounds for suing and that his dismissal was tied to his role in allowing the lid to rust.

The Toledo-area plant has been closed for a year for major repairs, including replacement of its damaged lid.

Siemaszko's frustrations with Davis-Besse's management about safety issues began almost immediately after he was hired in July 1999, the suit argues.

Siemaszko discovered that the reactor lid had not been cleaned well since 1996 and argued - without success, the complaint contends - for the time and money to modify the gantry that sits atop the lid because it obscured the lid and made it difficult to clean and inspect.

But "engineering management rejected [his] recommendations to add access holes [to the gantry], claiming that there was insufficient time to prepare the work package and meet the [2000] outage schedule," the suit claims

Siemaszko uses the suit to try to exonerate himself for his involvement in the incomplete cleaning of the reactor lid during the refueling outage in 2000 in which workers had to use crowbars to remove the dried corrosion but could not get at corrosion buildup at the very top of the reactor lid's dome.

Siemaszko said a report was written about the lid's condition that included photographs showing the rusty lid. He said he believes an NRC inspector was present during a plant meeting about the corrosion. The NRC is already investigating.

The complaint alleges that plant managers in that same refueling outage in April 2000 had scaffolding that his crew had been using dismantled overnight despite his insistence that he needed more time. The managers told him the job could be finished at the next refueling in two years. Managers then wrote a glowing article about his efforts in the company newsletter.

"This publication was the beginning of management's deception to the work force and later to the public and the NRC," the suit alleges.

The article "was not crafted or written by Mr. Siemaszko, but based on interviews conducted with him prior to the beginning of the cleaning when he assumed he would be permitted to clean the entire [lid].

"Mr. Siemaszko believes that if he had been provided a few more hours of cleaning time . . . he would have found the hole in the reactor [lid]," the complaint states.

The suit, which will ultimately be decided by an administrative law judge, also charges that Davis-Besse officials had photographic evidence as far back as 1998 that the reactor lid was rusting.

Among the exhibits attached to the complaint is a 1998 photo showing rivers of dried boric acid, slightly tinged with rust, running down the dome-shaped lid and piling up next to the lug nuts that bolt the 80-ton lid to the reactor vessel.

FirstEnergy did not submit a 2000 photograph showing heavy rust to the NRC in the fall of 2001 when the company was campaigning to defer an immediate inspection of its lid for cracks and leaks. But NRC inspectors should have seen that photo and the 1998 photo and taken action, said Billie Garde, Siemaszko's Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents whistle-blowers in the oil, chemical and nuclear industries.

The timing of Siemaszko's September sacking is important, said Garde, because it occurred even as Davis-Besse managers were assuring the NRC that they had fostered the development of a "safety culture" at the plant to encourage workers to bring up safety concerns.

"He was fired two days after he drew a line in the sand over the pump issue," Garde said.

Filing his suit as a federallyprotected "whistle-blower," Siemaszko is seeking reinstatement to his job with back pay and compensatory damages, she said.

Though Labor Department investigators are responsible for the primary investigation of the numerous allegations in the 29-page complaint, Garde said, she expects the NRC to look into the charge that the firing was a retaliatory action.

"I can't tell you what we will do in this case," said Brent Clayton, the NRC's enforcement and investigations coordinator for the Midwest. "Normally, we will call a person who has filed a complaint with the Department of Labor, and if they wish we will [also] investigate."

The retaliation charges, if proven, could figure into when FirstEnergy will get permission to restart the reactor.

"I have asked for a copy" of the complaint, said Jack Grobe, chairman of the NRC panel overseeing FirstEnergy's efforts to rehabilitate Davis-Besse and to resurrect its safety culture. "If there is anything in the complaint that causes us immediate concern, we'll address it promptly."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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