| Article published Wednesday, February 19, 2003|
says utility ignored rust
employee files whistleblower papers
Andrew Siemaszko submitted this 1998 company photo
showing rust on the reactor head to back up his case.
BLADE STAFF WRITER
OAK HARBOR, Ohio - FirstEnergy Corp. knew at
least as early as 1998 that boric acid was leaking from inside the
nuclear reactor at the Davis-Besse plant and was corroding the
reactor vessel head, a recently fired plant engineer charged in a
federal whistleblower complaint filed yesterday.
document, submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor and obtained by
The Blade, claims fired engineer Andrew Siemaszko, had been urging
the utility to clean rust from the plant’s reactor head almost from
the day he was hired in 1999 as a lead nuclear systems engineer with
a FirstEnergy subsidiary. When he and a crew of workers were finally
allowed to work on the problem during the plant’s 2000 refueling
outage, the complaint claims, there was so much rust accumulated on
the reactor head that workers used crowbars to pry it
But the complaint alleges that Mr. Siemaszko and his
crew were only given that one day to address the rust problem when
scaffolding needed for the work was removed before they arrived the
next day. As a result of the company’s decision not to proceed, the
complaint alleges, the workers did not come close to completing the
Submitted with the whistleblower complaint is a company
photograph taken on April 17, 1998, during an earlier refueling
outage. Like a highly controversial photograph taken during the 2000
refueling outage, the picture shows a lavalike flow of boric acid
had leaked from the reactor head’s weep holes causing large streaks
The presence of the 1998 photograph, according to
Mr. Siemaszko’s attorney, Billie Garde, indicates the company knew
about the rust problem even two years earlier than it admitted to
"It certainly undermines the company’s position
that [the corrosion] was a surprise," she said. "His initiative was
applauded by management as long as it didn’t run into cost and
The rust problem was left virtually uncontrolled
from 2000 until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was notified on
March 6, 2002, that some of the 25-year-old plant’s reactor-head
nozzles were cracked and leaking acid, the complaint
The acid buildup, which the NRC now believes occurred
since at least 1996, caused the worst corrosion of its kind in U.S.
nuclear history. A football-sized hole was reported in the carbon
steel of the reactor head, leaving only a thin stainless steel
lining less than three-eighths of an inch thick to prevent a
NRC investigators and nuclear safety
experts believe the corrosion problem was so extensive that it
brought northwest Ohio to the brink of a potential accident that
could have been as devastating as the 1979 Three Mile Island
accident in Pennsylvania. Those fears by nuclear experts are based
partly on the belief that vital backup safety features, such as
reactor coolant pumps, were so deteriorated they would not have
worked. Reactor coolant pumps are necessary to recirculate coolant
water in the event of a disaster.
Mr. Siemaszko, whose
efforts to address the corrosion problem in 2000 were praised in a
company newsletter called "The Insider," alleges in his complaint
that he was fired, in part, because he insisted last September that
gaskets on all four reactor coolant pumps be replaced.
company officials told him in a meeting on Sept. 16 they would limit
such work to two of the pumps initially and consider replacing
gaskets on the other pair after restart, the complaint states. Mr.
Siemaszko’s complaint states that he held his ground and insisted
all four pump gaskets be replaced. Two days later, on Sept. 18, he
was fired, according to his complaint.
He is seeking
reinstatement, plus back pay, unspecified compensatory damages, and
attorneys fees and expenses.
Mr. Siemaszko declined to be
interviewed when contacted by The Blade
FirstEnergy initially had little to say about the
allegations as well, citing the pending litigation.
believe there are no grounds for the complaint," Richard Wilkins,
FirstEnergy spokesman, said in a prepared statement. "The matter
will be settled in the appropriate legal forum."
In a second
prepared statement Mr. Wilkins submitted later to The Blade, the
company said Mr. Siemaszko was "one of 19 individuals who received
some kind of sanction" for various roles in regard to the reactor
In Mr. Siemaszko’s termination letter, the
company cited Mr. Siemaszko’s performance in connection with the
reactor-head corrosion. The termination letter made no reference to
his stance on the reactor coolant pump issue, according to the
Jack Grobe, chairman of the NRC
oversight panel assigned to Davis-Besse, said he could not respond
to the complaint until he sees it.
"We’ll certainly be
checking into it," he said.
Mr. Siemaszko’s complaint alleges
that his firing has created a "chilling effect" among Davis-Besse
employees at a time when the NRC is demanding that FirstEnergy
foster a work atmosphere that encourages employees to be forthcoming
about safety concerns.
"This individual is a very brave soul,
certainly. He’s really kind of letting the world know the depth and
breadth of the problems that still exist," said Howard Whitcomb, a
Toledo attorney and Oak Harbor resident who once was an NRC resident
inspector in South Carolina. He also was employed by Toledo Edison
at Davis-Besse and has raised numerous allegations about plant
Mr. Siemaszko’s complaint will likely be
assigned to an investigator in the Labor Department’s Occupational
Safety and Health Administration. His attorney contends his status
entitles him to protection from retaliation under federal
whistleblower laws designed to encourage workers in certain
industries, such as nuclear plants, to come forward with safety
The near-rupture of Davis-Besse’s reactor head
could have worldwide ramifications for the nuclear industry. The NRC
has mandated enhanced inspections of reactor heads at all U.S.
plants. An international symposium is scheduled March 24-26 in the
Washington area to discuss possible implications for countries such
as France, Japan, and Sweden, which are heavily invested in nuclear
power to meet their rising energy needs.
NRC officials and
others admittedly have been puzzled as to whether Davis-Besse’s
massive problems were merely an anomaly involving a utility that did
not keep up with maintenance - or a symptom of wear-and-tear as
nuclear plants age and are more prone to cracking because of the
enormous heat and stress they endure for years.
Davis-Besse’s problem was announced, FirstEnergy’s first move was to
propose a repair of the reactor head. After being told by the NRC
that would likely be unfeasible, the company made arrangements with
contractor Framatome ANP to buy a replacement head from a similar
plant in Midland, Mich. That plant was mothballed in 1985 before it
But Mr. Siemaszko’s complaint claims
FirstEnergy showed an interest in the Midland reactor head as far
back as Aug. 2, 2001 - more than six months before the company shut
down Davis-Besse to start refueling the plant and allegedly start
checking to see if there was a problem.
recommended the Midland head to his company and obtained a quote for
it from TechLink, Inc., on that date, according to his
Activists said they believe that and other
previously reported developments that occurred prior to the shutdown
- such as the decision in October, 2001, to have a new head
manufactured and large sales of stock by company officials - adds to
their belief that the company knew a lot more than it has revealed
"This is unbelievable," fumed Amy Ryder, Ohio
Citizen Action spokesman. "I think it speaks loud and clear why this
reactor needs to stay closed."
"FirstEnergy watched this
plant deteriorate. It was documented within the company. But the
fact is production was more important than the deterioration of
safety margins at the plant," said Paul Gunter of Nuclear
Information and Resource Service, a nuclear power watchdog
"This is the kind of callous disregard for public
safety that warrants revocation of their license," he
NRC officials have said they did not have prior
knowledge of the 1998 and 2000 photographs, nor of FirstEnergy’s
contingency plans that were apparently being made well in advance of
the shutdown. Sensing that Davis-Besse’s reactor-head nozzles were
cracked and leaking acid, NRC staffers had called for Davis-Besse to
get a rare government shutdown order in November, 2001 - only to be
overruled by senior officials willing to compromise and let the
plant keep running until Feb. 16, 2002.
Mr. Siemaszko claimed
in his complaint that he sought to have the reactor head cleaned
during the 2000 outage, a year after he started working at
FirstEnergy said the work would have to be
completed during a subsequent outage to save money, according to the
Local members of Congress appeared
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) said the
whistleblower complaint could have information that supports his
effort to revoke FirstEnergy’s operating license at Davis-Besse.
"These are very serious charges. I hope to talk to Mr. Siemaszko
about this, especially in light of the petition I filed with the
NRC," he said through spokesman Doug Gordon.
U.S. Rep. Marcy
Kaptur (D., Toledo), who has called for permanent shutdown of the
plant and more investigation into the NRC’s oversight, said the
complaint suggests to her that FirstEnergy deserves to be
investigated at least as much as the NRC. "Let the chips fall where
they will," she said.
During a Senate subcommittee hearing
about Davis-Besse on Thursday, the chairman of the panel - U.S. Sen.
George Voinovich (R., Ohio) - expressed frustration about
Davis-Besse. Mr. Voinovich, unlike Mr. Kucinich and Miss Kaptur, has
voted pro-nuclear on several issues.
"One of the things
Senator Voinovich made perfectly clear to anyone who could hear at
the hearing last Thursday was that he does not want any more
surprises out of Davis-Besse," said Scott Milburn, Mr. Voinovich’s
press secretary. "That means running down every allegation and
complaint. The most important job the NRC has is safety."
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