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FirstEnergy puts blame on engineer for rust hole

04/25/03

John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

A Davis-Besse nuclear plant engineer who claims he was fired for raising safety concerns is a liar and deserves much of the blame for the undetected rust hole that crippled the reactor, his former employer says.

In its most extensive comments yet on the matter, Davis-Besse owner FirstEnergy Corp. has told federal regulators that the engineer, Andrew Siemaszko, deserved to be sacked.

The firing was not retaliatory, as Siemaszko contends, FirstEnergy nuclear division CEO Robert Saunders insisted as part of a sharply worded letter to Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The letter responded to a petition by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland to have Davis-Besse's license revoked.

Instead, FirstEnergy's decision was based "solely on legitimate business reasons" and shows the company is willing to hold people accountable, Saunders wrote. It was justified because of Siemaszko's "compelling performance failures" in giving his bosses misleading information that they submitted to the NRC.

Although no employee should be singled out, Siemaszko deserved termination for not preventing or finding the pineapple-sized rust hole that ate through the reactor's steel lid for at least four years, Saunders said.

Only a thin, bulging liner kept the reactor's high-pressure coolant from spurting out and causing a serious accident.

Siemaszko in February filed a federal "whistle-blower" complaint against FirstEnergy saying he was let go in violation of the law that protects nuclear workers who raise concerns in the interest of public safety.

Siemaszko's attorney, Billie Garde, yesterday called Saunders' comments "bizarre."

"This is clearly an attempt by the company to scapegoat Andrew and to somehow visit all the failures connected with this event on his shoulders," Garde said. "That's an outrageous leap. They're calling him a liar, incompetent and evil, all at the same time. They've arrived at that basis by so twisting the facts. These people are from a parallel universe."

Garde said he believes Siemaszko is the sole Davis-Besse employee FirstEnergy fired for the rust hole debacle, which has idled the Toledo-area reactor for 14 months, prompted intense NRC scrutiny, and cost the company about $400 million for repairs and replacement power.

Eighteen Davis-Besse employees were disciplined, a FirstEnergy spokesman said. Some were given the option of resigning; others were transferred or reprimanded.

Siemaszko has said he turned down FirstEnergy's offer to resign in lieu of firing because quitting would indicate he was guilty of misconduct.

The engineer was hired in 1999 - three to five years after FirstEnergy estimates that cracked nozzles in the reactor lid began leaking coolant and a year after the start of the aggressive corrosion that would ruin the vital cover.

Siemaszko's job was to oversee the reactor coolant system. He says his frustrations with Davis-Besse's management about safety issues began soon after he arrived.

His whistle-blower complaint says he discovered the reactor lid had not been cleaned well since 1996, but that managers thwarted his repeated efforts to do a better job. They rejected his recommendation to enlarge portholes in the gantry that sits atop the lid to make cleaning easier.

And with his crew's work in 2000 to clean hundreds of pounds of dried coolant residue from the lid only partially finished, Siemaszko said, managers halted the project, ordered some scaffolding dismantled, and told him the job could be finished during the next refueling shutdown in two years. They wrote a glowing article about his efforts in the company newsletter.

Saunders describes a much different picture of what happened. Contrary to Siemaszko's claim, Saunders said, the engineer didn't push to modify the gantry. And he said Siemaszko didn't object to ending the lid-cleaning, noting instead in a report that "work [was] performed without deviations."

Garde said Siemaszko's comment referred to setting up the scaffolding prior to cleaning, not the cleaning itself.

Saunders' letter also largely blames Siemaszko for the "inaccurate and incomplete information" the company used to assure the NRC shortly before the rust hole's discovery that Davis-Besse's lid was in good condition.

The NRC is investigating whether FirstEnergy's information lapses were deliberate. The agency's Office of Investigations has questioned Siemaszko and other employees.

Contrary to FirstEnergy's claim, Garde said Siemaszko prepared accurate reports about workers' inability to completely clean the lid of dried coolant. The company "modified, edited, reworked and massaged" his descriptions to give the impression the lid was free of residue before submitting them to the NRC, she said. Siemaszko's whistle-blower complaint contains samples of Siemaszko's drafts and the company's revisions.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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