| Article published Wednesday, February 26, 2003|
corrosion 1 of worst violations
Operator may face agency’s largest
By TOM HENRY
OAK HARBOR, Ohio - The Nuclear Regulatory
Commission yesterday officially classified Davis-Besse’s
reactor-head corrosion among its most serious safety violations,
leaving open the possibility that FirstEnergy Corp. could face the
largest fine the agency has ever assessed a nuclear plant
Much depends on a subjective call that eventually
will have to be made by government investigators: Whether they
believe the company engaged in criminal activity and intentionally
misled the NRC about the extent of the corrosion problem prior to
the plant’s refueling shutdown on Feb. 16, 2002.
activity or not, the NRC will likely keep FirstEnergy under intense
scrutiny for a long time because of yesterday’s announcement, said
agency spokesman Jan Strasma.
"I don’t want to say we’re
heading into unprecedented territory here, but we’re certainly in
unusual territory," he said.
Though regulatory commission
officials have long acknowledged the football-sized gap in
Davis-Besse’s reactor head had the potential of turning into the
nation’s worst nuclear accident since Three Mile Island in 1979, the
process of stepping back and analyzing management decisions that
allowed the breakdown to occur has been an arduous task.
main purpose was to classify the event in terms of safety
significance for the purpose of oversight and the possibility of
fines, Mr. Strasma said.
Should investigators determine that
no information was intentionally withheld, FirstEnergy could escape
without a fine. But if they determine the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission was misled, the case either will be referred to the U.S.
Department of Justice for criminal prosecution or stay under the
NRC’s jurisdiction as a civil matter for a fine, he said.
NRC’s Office of Investigations decides whether the case should be
referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.
largest fine issued in U.S. nuclear history was $2.1 million against
Northeast Nuclear Energy Co. on Dec. 10, 1997, for numerous
violations at the company’s Millstone nuclear plant complex in
Waterford, Conn., according to NRC records.
conceivably be fined up to $110,000 per day for each violation at
Davis-Besse, dating back to when each began. Ten violations were
cited in October, some with multiple allegations.
starting date for certain violations could go as far back as the
mid-1990s if allegations raised in a fired engineer’s federal
whistleblower complaint prove to be true.
contends FirstEnergy knew about the corrosion as early as 1996. He
submitted an April, 1998, photograph with his complaint showing
corrosion on the reactor head. The rust is similar to that shown in
a 2000 photograph the company took but did not make available to the
NRC because FirstEnergy claimed the agency never asked for
The NRC’s Midwest regional office in Lisle, Ill., said
that "performance deficiencies" at Davis-Besse led to its decision
yesterday to declare the rust hole an event of "high safety
significance." The "red" category in which that violation was
classified is the agency’s most serious.
The finding is, by
law, considered preliminary. Utilities get 30 days to
FirstEnergy does not plan to appeal, said Richard
Wilkins, company spokesman.
"We anticipated there would be a
finding of some sort and that it would be significant," he said. "We
don’t intend to contest it."
FirstEnergy is still hoping to
complete repairs at Davis-Besse and restart the plant in April, but
the NRC has indicated that inspection schedules could delay a
restart until at least May.
While NRC investigators continue
their probe into possible criminal activity, the agency is
considering a petition from U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.,
Cleveland) to revoke FirstEnergy’s license at
"While I am glad that the [NRC] finally
acknowledged the danger of [Davis-Besse], I wonder what took them so
long," Mr. Kucinich said. "I think the NRC’s action, which is a year
too late, calls into question the NRC’s desire to effectively
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who has
called for a permanent shutdown of the plant, was not available for
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