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February 21, 2003

 



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Regional News | Article published Friday, February 21, 2003
NRC looking at complaint about Besse
Ex-worker says plant knew of leak in 1998

By
BLADE STAFF WRITER


ROCKVILLE, Md. - Allegations raised in a federal whistleblower complaint this week will be reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Inspector General as part of its probe into NRC oversight failures at FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant.

"The issues will be included in our ongoing investigation," George Mulley, the inspector general’s senior level assistant for investigative operations, said yesterday. "It provides us new information to work with."

Fired engineer Andrew Siemaszko alleged in a 24-page complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor that he was illegally dismissed on Sept. 18, two days after insisting FirstEnergy replace gaskets on each of Davis-Besse’s four reactor coolant pumps.

Lew Myers, chief operating officer of the utility’s nuclear subsidiary and the plant’s vice president, had told him the company had no plans to replace gaskets other than those on two pumps that were known to need such repair, the complaint alleged.

Mr. Siemaszko’s attorney, Billie Garde, said she viewed her client’s firing as a sign that FirstEnergy was not encouraging its employees to come forward with their concerns about plant operations, contrary to what the company has been telling the NRC in recent weeks in hopes of gaining approval to restart the beleaguered plant. FirstEnergy claims the complaint has no merit.

Reactor coolant pumps are used to circulate water through the reactor during normal operating conditions. They are separate from residual heat removal pumps that would recirculate water collected by the plant’s containment sump in the event of a line-break that results in a loss-of-coolant accident, Jan Strasma, NRC spokesman, said yesterday. The latter set has come under scrutiny lately because of questions over whether the sump would have worked in an accident, he said.

Davis-Besse has been shut down since Feb. 16, 2002. Three weeks later, workers found a rusted-out cavity six inches deep in the plant’s carbon steel reactor head, exposing only a thin liner of stainless steel that had hairline cracks and had started to buckle. The near-rupture has been described as the nation’s closest brush with a nuclear accident since Three Mile Island in 1979.

The NRC’s inspector general in early January issued a scathing report, claiming the agency violated public trust by allowing itself to be persuaded by FirstEnergy’s financial pleas while contemplating an emergency shutdown order in the fall of 2001. The NRC is required to hold safety above all other considerations.

A new probe was initiated Feb. 5 at the request of U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), after reports that the NRC may have been privy to a photo taken during the plant’s 2000 outage depicting serious rust on the reactor lid. The inspector general’s office, which is investigating the NRC’s performance in overseeing problems at the plant, wants to ascertain what NRC officials knew and what they should have known, Mr. Mulley said.

Mr. Siemaszko’s complaint cites evidence that FirstEnergy knew about corrosive boric acid leaking from its reactor and damaging the vessel’s steel cap as early as 1998. That evidence includes an April, 1998, photo submitted with the complaint that showed rust on the reactor similar to that in the 2000 photo.

Though the pictures were taken two years apart, the issues are similar enough to be incorporated in the same investigation, Mr. Mulley said.

Also yesterday, the NRC’s Midwest regional office in Lisle, Ill., said it has notified FirstEnergy that it will likely impose no fines on FirstEnergy for radioactive particles that left the plant on four construction workers due to malfunctioning detection equipment. FirstEnergy was cited for violating regulations by allowing four contract workers to leave the Davis-Besse complex on Feb. 20, 2002, with radioactive particles on their clothing after doing some steam-generator work.

The particles eventually were traced across Ohio and other states after those and other workers showed up with some of them at their next jobs. The NRC’s regional office, after an investigation, said Jan. 7 it considered the risk to the public minor and inconsequential. It declared the significance to the utility as "low to moderate," but required procedural changes to keep it from happening again.

For earlier stories on Davis-Besse, go to www.toledoblade.com/davisbesse.



More articles on this subject »
NRC exec took word of Besse’s owners 02/20/2003
Engineer says utility ignored rust 02/19/2003
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

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