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
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
``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
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,''
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
``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 firstname.lastname@example.org