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April 29, 2003

 



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Regional News | Article published Tuesday, April 29, 2003
Treatment of ex-nuclear plant staffer questioned

By
BLADE STAFF WRITER


Efforts to get Davis-Besse employees to talk with regulators about problems at the nuclear power plant may be irrevocably hampered by the accusations leveled by FirstEnergy at a fired engineer, according to two nuclear industry whistleblowers.

Paul Blanch and Ulrich Witte, formerly of the troubled Millstone complex in Connecticut, said they believe that FirstEnergy’s charges against Andrew Siemaszko will discourage other employees from coming forward - regardless of whether Mr. Siemaszko proves he is a whistleblower who was wrongfully terminated.

"It is just sending a horrible, horrible message to the employees that if they [FirstEnergy management] can get away with it, they will," Mr. Blanch said. "The message is out there that the utility is persecuting whistleblowers."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said it needs employees to feel comfortable taking safety concerns to them without fear of retribution. By laying much of the blame at Mr. Siemaszko’s feet, FirstEnergy is making it tougher for employees to cooperate, Mr. Witte said.

"I guarantee there will never be a credible witness who will step forward and speak honestly about what happened at that plant, because of this," he added.

Millstone is the only site other than Davis-Besse that has undergone the NRC’s relatively new "safety culture" and "safety-conscious work environment" review process.

NRC officials have said their Millstone investigation, initiated in 1996, stemmed from evidence that employees - including Mr. Blanch and Mr. Witte - had been harassed and intimidated. Both men were later given whistleblower protection by the government. Mr. Siemaszko is seeking similar protection.

FirstEnergy fired back at Mr. Siemaszko through a supplemental response to a petition filed by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland). The congressman’s petition, filed in February, asks for the NRC to revoke FirstEnergy’s license.

In that report, FirstEnergy stated that Mr. Siemaszko is largely to blame for the deterioration of Davis-Besse’s reactor head. That document, filed April 11 and recently made public, was signed by Bob Saunders, president and chief nuclear officer of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. It further stated that much of the "inaccurate and incomplete" information that has been provided to the NRC is Mr. Siemaszko’s fault.

Although the filing was in response to the congressman’s petition, it was the first in which the company responded at length to allegations raised in February in Mr. Siemaszko’s whistleblower complaint. He alleged in that U.S. Department of Labor complaint that FirstEnergy knew for years that Davis-Besse’s reactor head was eroding. He said his dismissal last September stemmed from his insistence to fix that massive piece of equipment, as well as four pumps used to circulate cooling water.

Richard Wilkins, FirstEnergy spokesman, said the company responded appropriately to a petition filed by the congressman.

Mr. Siemaszko, one of 18 current or former employees who have been disciplined, was dismissed because he had a "key role," he said.

A former lead nuclear systems engineer, Mr. Siemaszko supervised workers assigned to perform maintenance on the reactor head. He said in his complaint that he urged the company to clean rust off the reactor head almost from the day he was hired in 1999.

The company disputes Mr. Siemaszko’s claims, saying that he expressed no such veracity about the problem - even though a company newsletter lauded him for his efforts following the refueling outage in 2000.

The reactor-head rust problem, the worst in U.S. nuclear history, was publicly revealed on March 6, 2002.

Billie Garde, Mr. Siemasko’s attorney, accused FirstEnergy of using the petition response as a forum for attacking her client and diverting attention from management.

Like Millstone, Davis-Besse will be required to show evidence of an improved work atmosphere before it can be restarted, the NRC has said.

Mr. Saunders said in his letter that FirstEnergy’s decision to fire Mr. Siemaszko could improve morale because it is indicative of the company’s commitment to hold people accountable.

Ms. Garde said the company just demonstrated the opposite. "That apparently doesn’t matter to them, which speaks volumes," she said.




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