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Posted on Wed, Oct. 29, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
NRC worker now at utility
Inspector who failed to find Davis-Besse hole employed by FirstEnergy at same plant

Beacon Journal business writer

One of two on-site government inspectors who failed to find the corrosion hole in the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant is now working there for owner FirstEnergy Corp.

FirstEnergy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said the career move by Kevin Zellers did not violate any ethics laws, and point out that it is commonplace for NRC employees to move to jobs in the industry they regulate.

Some industry critics, however, were surprised to learn of the move by Zellers because he was the NRC senior resident inspector at Davis-Besse in April 2000, when a plant employee reported photos of boric acid leakage that ultimately ate a hole through the top of the reactor.

Zellers now works as an engineer at Davis-Besse, where documents show he has been involved in safety evaluation programs.

The second on-site inspector who misread the evidence, Doug Simpkins, was promoted by the NRC to senior resident inspector at the Hatch nuclear plant in Georgia.

Zellers and Simpkins were highlighted in an NRC report released Oct. 21 that criticized the commission's oversight at Davis-Besse. They declined opportunities to talk.

Hiring is criticized

Critics of the NRC and FirstEnergy Corp., though, had plenty to say.

``The fact that anyone involved in the process of reviewing Davis-Besse was promoted is absurd,'' said Doug Gordon, spokesman for Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich pushed to have the NRC's Office of the Inspector General do an investigation that led to the release last week of the report that criticized Zellers, Simpkins and others, though not by name.

Howard Whitcomb, a Toledo-area lawyer who is a former NRC inspector and a former manager at Davis-Besse in the 1980s, said hiring a resident inspector at the plant the inspector had been overseeing ``clearly is inappropriate.''

``I think it's obvious what the conflicts of interest are,'' Whitcomb said. ``You work for the NRC and then you work for the utility that you're covering? Come on.''

Whitcomb, who is suing FirstEnergy to prevent the restart of the plant, was an NRC quality assurance inspector at a nuclear plant in South Carolina when he left to work for what was then Toledo Edison-owned Davis-Besse.

Shari Weir of Ohio Citizen Action, which has been campaigning to keep Davis-Besse shut down, said she was alarmed that FirstEnergy managers decided to hireZellers. She said she didn't suspect any wrongdoing, but said the resident inspectors in 2000 should have acted on the mounting boric acid problems.

``It's just further evidence FirstEnergy should not be running the plant,'' Weir said.

Such moves common

Employees at the NRC and others in the nuclear power industry, however, say such moves as Zellers' and Simpkins' happen regularly because there is a limited pool of qualified candidates.

``It's a fairly small industry,'' said David Lochbaum, nuclear engineer with the watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists.

The NRC does not stop its inspectors from moving directly into jobs at the plants they regulate. The agency does, however, use other means to ensure its inspectors remain independent.

The NRC used to require resident inspectors, who work full time at the plants they cover, to rotate to new plants every two years, Lochbaum said. But that caused high turnover among inspectors who did not want to uproot their families that often, he said.

The maximum time resident inspectors now cover a power plant is seven years, said NRC spokesman Jan Strasma.

The NRC moves resident inspectors around because ``we don't want the inspectors to become more closely identified with a plant,'' Strasma said.

The NRC has about 150 resident inspectors, he said. They are paid between $54,440 and $101,337 a year, depending on seniority and expertise, according to the NRC.

To avoid conflicts of interest, NRC employees are required to tell the agency if they are interviewing for a job in the industry, NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said. Resident inspectors are then forbidden to work at a plant and typically are moved to an NRC regional office until employed elsewhere, she said.

In addition, former NRC employees working in private industry can never represent a licensee, such as a power plant owner, before the NRC in any areas they were involved in as an NRC employee, she said. In addition, the former NRC employee cannot represent a licensee before the NRC for any reason for a full year after leaving the agency, she said.

On the other side, the NRC has employees who previously worked in the nuclear power industry, she said. ``That's the job pool.''

Both the NRC and Zellers followed appropriate procedures when he became a Davis-Besse employee, she said.

Both aware of leaks

In 2000, then-NRC senior resident inspector Zellers and resident inspector Simpkins may have seen pictures of rusty boric acid near the spot where a pineapple-sized hole had eaten into the reactor. A Davis-Besse engineer said he gave one of the inspectors a report in April that year that included color photographs showing rusty, lavalike boric acid flows coming from the top of the reactor.

Zellers and Simpkins told the NRC investigators they did not specifically recall seeing the photographs, but both said they were aware of the acid leaks. Simpkins said he did not have sufficient training to recognize the significance of the acid deposits on the reactor. Zellers told the NRC he assumed the company would take appropriate measures to correct the problem.

Instead, FirstEnergy employees left dry boric acid on top of the vessel head, where it covered over a growing rust hole that went all the way through 6 inches of carbon steel, only to be stopped by a frying-pan-thin inner lining of stainless steel.

Zellers was hired by FirstEnergy to work as an engineer at Davis-Besse in early fall 2001, months before the rust hole was found in March 2002. Simpkins' promotion came after the problems at Davis-Besse were found.

Both the NRC and FirstEnergy determined there was no wrongdoing by Zellers while he was a resident inspector at Davis-Besse, he said.

``The only reason he was hired was because he was a good engineer,'' said FirstEnergy spokesman Richard Wilkins.

According to an interview Zellers gave to the Office of Inspector General in May 2002, he began working as resident inspector at Davis-Besse in 1995, and in 2001 decided to leave the NRC for a private industry job at the Fermi nuclear plant in Michigan. FirstEnergy learned he was leaving for Fermi and offered him a job at Davis-Besse, he said. He began working at Davis-Besse sometime in October that year, Zellers told investigators.

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com

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