NRC rates corrosion as one of worst violations

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 operator.

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.

Criminal 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.

The 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.

The NRC’s Office of Investigations decides whether the case should be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.

The 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.

FirstEnergy could 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.

The 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.

The ex-employee 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 it.

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 appeal.

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 Davis-Besse.

"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 regulate."

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who has called for a permanent shutdown of the plant, was not available for comment.