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Largest fine ever sought against nuke plant

U.S. regulators on Thursday proposed a record $5.45 million fine against the operator of a nuclear power plant where leaking acid ate nearly all the way through a steel cap on the reactor vessel.
The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, located on Lake Erie near Port Clinton, Ohio, faced a six in 1,000 chance of a meltdown when acid ate through a reactor vessel head, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found.AP file
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposed a record $5.45 million fine Thursday against the operator of a nuclear plant where leaking acid ate nearly all the way through a 6-inch-thick steel cap on the reactor vessel.

The NRC said FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. restarted the Davis-Besse plant in 2000 without completing a cleaning and inspection of the reactor vessel head, then misled the agency about what it had done.

The leaking boric acid was found two years later during a routine inspection — the most extensive corrosion ever seen at a U.S. nuclear reactor.

Federal regulators estimated there were six chances in a 1,000 that the plant could have experienced a meltdown during the year before it was shut down for routine maintenance in February 2002. Normally, the risk of an accident at Davis-Besse is about six in 100,000.

Engineer banned for 5 years
“This substantial fine emphasizes the very high safety and regulatory significance of FirstEnergy’s failure to comply with NRC requirements,” Luis Reyes, NRC executive director for operations, said in a statement.

The NRC also said it is banning one of the company’s former engineers from working in the nuclear industry for five years. The agency said that Andrew Siemaszko was responsible for making sure the reactor vessel head was cleaned and inspected and that he deliberately provided false information.

The damage at the plant along the Lake Erie shore, 30 miles east of Toledo, ranks among the nation’s worst nuclear problems since the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania 1979. It led to a review of 68 similar plants nationwide.

The Davis-Besse plant was closed for two years but has since returned to full power.

“Since the plant’s restart in March 2004, it has operated safely and continues to operate safely,” Reyes said. “Davis-Besse’s performance has been closely monitored by a dedicated NRC oversight panel and the inspection staff, including three NRC resident inspectors that are assigned to that site.”

Appeals possible
FirstEnergy, in a statement, said it was reviewing the NRC notice. Both the company and the fired engineer have 90 days to respond to the proposed fine.

A federal grand jury is investigating whether the company provided false statements to the NRC. The utility said in December that it probably would face charges.

Siemaszko has said that he was wrongly fired and that since 1999 he had told supervisors the reactor needed to be cleaned. A call to his attorney was not immediately returned Thursday.

FirstEnergy, based in Akron, spent $600 million making repairs and buying replacement power because of the two-year shutdown.