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Corroded reactor head sparks federal inquiry


Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief


- Federal criminal investigators are looking into FirstEnergy Corp.'s handling of problems at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, where corrosion created a large hole in the reactor head.

The hole left only a sheet of stainless steel to hold in radioactive coolant under high pressure.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Office of Investigations - its criminal unit - wants to find out whether the Akron-based utility withheld knowledge of serious problems at the Oak Harbor plant, preventing an earlier shutdown and inspection, according to several interviews.

FirstEnergy says Davis-Besse was always safe. But the NRC regional administrator who oversees Davis-Besse recently said the utility had left "an unacceptable margin of safety."

The NRC wanted Davis-Besse and similar nuclear power plants shut down for inspections by last Dec. 31 after a South Carolina reactor with a similar design developed problems. FirstEnergy asked for a delay until April, when it would be shutting down for a scheduled refueling.

While the NRC would not grant that much time, it gave FirstEnergy an extra six weeks, until Feb. 16. The subsequent inspection revealed cracks in tubes through the top of the reactor. And while repairing one tube, FirstEnergy discovered a large corrosion hole caused by leaking boric acid.

Since then, NRC employees on a fact-finding inspection have found "that there were several pieces of information that the company had which should have led them to believe they had a significant corrosion problem," said Jan Strasma, of the NRC's Chicago regional office. "And this was over the past two years."

The signs included "clogging of filters" with corrosion-laden substances inside the reactor containment area. And during the last refueling, two years ago, "they were not able to fully inspect the top of the reactor head because of some obstruction," Strasma said. "They looked for possible sources" of the obstruction but not fully enough to find the source of corrosion, he said.

The NRC is following up to see if FirstEnergy violated NRC civil rules and thus faces possible civil sanctions, such as fines. But NRC's Office of Investigations also has stepped in, NRC and FirstEnergy acknowledge.

Strasma would not comment on the criminal probe but said the Office of Investigations has jurisdiction over "criminal investigations or investigations on potential wrongdoing or deliberate violations."

Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the NRC wants to know "whether FirstEnergy was entirely forthcoming with what they knew and when they knew it." Lochbaum, citing sources in the NRC, described the current probe as "the first stage of a criminal investigation."

If the NRC finds violations such as failure to provide full, complete and accurate information to the NRC - a federal crime - it could refer the matter to the Justice Department for prosecution. However, such referrals are unusual, Lochbaum says.

FirstEnergy would never withhold information, a spokesman said.

"If we knew there was a problem with the head, we would have shut down immediately, because safety is our first and foremost concern," said spokesman Todd Schneider.

Among the things investigators want to know, Lochbaum said, again citing NRC sources, is why FirstEnergy placed an order to buy a replacement vessel head before it disclosed that the old one was damaged.

Said Schneider: "Because we had made plans to replace it in 2004."

Reactor heads are expensive to inspect - about $7 million, he said - and over time it can be economical to order a new one for $5 million, even with installation costing an additional $15 million.

"That was planned a year ago," Schneider said.

David Lockwood, Davis-Besse manager of regulatory affairs, issued a two-page memo Thursday to all plant personnel explaining their "rights and responsibilities" - including their right to have a lawyer present and to make their own tape recordings if interviewed by investigators. "Although such interviews are voluntary, the company believes it is important to cooperate fully" with the investigators, said the memo, obtained by The Plain Dealer.

Lockwood also recommended that employees cooperate fully with the investigation.

His memo said that while employees do not have to tell FirstEnergy if they have been asked to submit to an NRC interview, the company would appreciate it if they would - and "would appreciate receiving copies of any written statements, transcripts or tape recordings" made in the process.

Contact Stephen Koff at:

skoff@plaind.com, 216-999-4212

2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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