updated 1/20/2006 11:31:15 AM ET 2006-01-20T16:31:15

Acknowledging that its employees covered up serious damage at a nuclear power plant, the facility's owner has agreed to pay $28 million in fines, restitution and community service projects, the U.S. Justice Department announced Friday.

Inspectors found an acid leak in 2002 that nearly ate through a 6-inch (15-centimeter) steel cap on the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant owned by FirstEnergy Corp. Officials said it was the most extensive corrosion ever seen at a U.S. nuclear reactor.

Company and Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigations concluded that the rust hole had been growing for at least four years and that Davis-Besse's managers had ignored the evidence because they were focused on profits rather than safety at the plant, which sits along the Lake Erie shore about 30 miles east of Toledo.

As part of the agreement, FirstEnergy acknowledged that the government can prove that nuclear plant employees "knowingly made false representations to the NRC" at they tried to convince the commission the plant was safe to operate beyond 2001, the Justice Department said in a statement.

U.S. Attorney Greg White began a criminal investigation of the plant in November 2003. Late Thursday, a federal grand jury indicted two former Davis-Besse employees and a contractor, charging them with hiding damage from federal regulators.

Last year, the NRC levied a record $5.45 million fine against FirstEnergy for failing to stop the leak.

The plant was closed for two years but returned to full power in 2004. Akron-based FirstEnergy spent $600 million making repairs and buying replacement power because of the shutdown.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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