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Regional News | Article published Wednesday, February 19, 2003
DAVIS-BESSE
Engineer says utility ignored rust
Fired employee files whistleblower papers
Picture

Andrew Siemaszko submitted this 1998 company photo showing rust on the reactor head to back up his case.
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By
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.

The 24-page 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 off.

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 task.

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 of rust.

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 last August.

"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 scheduling."

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 says.

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 high-pressure rupture.

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.

Senior 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 yesterday.

FirstEnergy initially had little to say about the allegations as well, citing the pending litigation.

"We 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 head problems.

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 whistleblower complaint.

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 management himself.

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 concerns.

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.

When 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 was finished.

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.

Mr. Siemaszko recommended the Midland head to his company and obtained a quote for it from TechLink, Inc., on that date, according to his complaint.

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 to date.

"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 group.

"This is the kind of callous disregard for public safety that warrants revocation of their license," he said.

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 Davis-Besse.

FirstEnergy said the work would have to be completed during a subsequent outage to save money, according to the complaint.

Local members of Congress appeared stunned.

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."



More articles on this subject »
Regulator flip-flopped on Davis-Besse shutdown 02/15/2003
FirstEnergy’s loss in quarter cuts ’02 profit 02/14/2003
Activist groups criticize plan to evacuate Davis-Besse 02/13/2003
Besse plans to restart with non-nuclear test 02/12/2003
Ottawa County criticizes Kucinich 02/08/2003

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