WASHINGTON, D.C. – The FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company (FENOC), has agreed to pay $28 million in penalties, restitution, and community service projects as part of an agreement to defer prosecution of the company, the Justice Department announced today. Under the terms of the deferred prosecution agreement, FENOC admits that the government can prove that its employees, acting on its behalf, knowingly made false representations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the course of attempting to persuade the NRC that its Davis–Besse Nuclear Power Station was safe to operate beyond December 31, 2001. Prasoon Goyal, a design engineer, also accepted and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the government.
In addition to these agreements, two former employees and one former contractor of FENOC were charged in a five-count indictment for allegedly preparing and providing false statements to the NRC. It is alleged that David Geisen, Andrew Siemaszko, and Rodney Cook falsely represented to the NRC that past inspections of the plant were adequate to assure safe operation until February or March of 2002. “By misleading the NRC about its prior safety inspections, FENOC failed to meet its regulatory obligations and violated the public's trust," said Assistant Attorney General Sue Ellen Wooldridge for the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division. “The deferred prosecution agreement entered today involves a full admission of responsibility by FENOC and includes a financial penalty that reflects the revenue that FENOC realized by misleading the NRC and delaying required safety inspections at the Davis–Besse facility.” “This has been a long and difficult investigation,” said U.S. Attorney Gregory A. White for the Northern District of Ohio. “I want to thank the Office of Investigations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for their hard work and dedication. I hope and trust that the honest assessment of responsibility and the remedial actions taken by both FENOC and the NRC will result in a nuclear industry that is safer and more productive. In order to achieve that goal, everyone must take appropriate action to ensure that submissions to the NRC, upon which they make crucial safety discussions, are accurate and complete in all respects.”
FENOC owns and operates the Davis–Besse Nuclear Power Station, which is located on the southwestern shore of Lake Erie, near Oak Harbor, Ohio. To produce energy, the plant utilizes pressurized water reactors (PWRs) to heat water to ≈600 degrees Fahrenheit through the process of nuclear fission. At that temperature, the reactor coolant water—which is sealed inside a reactor pressure vessel—reaches a pressure of ≈2000 pounds per square inch (psi). The reactor coolant is then used to super-heat steam to drive turbines that generate electricity.
Reactor operators use two systems to control the rate of fission. First, they can raise or lower vertical control rods in the reactor core to absorb the neutrons that drive the reaction. The machinery that raises and lowers the control rods is attached to the reactor vessel head (lid) of the reactor pressure vessel. Nozzles pierce the dome shaped head and the control rods are raised and lowered through those nozzles. Secondly, for fine fission and reactor power control, operators also added (or removed) boric acid from the reactor coolant water. Like the control rods, the boric acid also absorbed neutrons. The Davis–Besse reactor vessel head had 69 nozzles.
In the 1990’s, some PWR’s in power plants, like Davis–Besse, started to develop cracks where the nozzles were welded to the reactor vessel head. This cracking could lead to breaks where control rod nozzles penetrated the steel-walled vessel that contained the nuclear fuel and the pressurized reactor coolant water, resulting in a potentially serious accident that would stress the plants’ safety systems. Engineers predict that a broken nozzle, propelled by reactor coolant at 2000 psi, would violently launch itself out of the reactor vessel head, leaving a hole through which reactor coolant would escape into the containment building.
In August 2001, following reports of nozzle cracks, the NRC issued Bulletin 2001–01, requiring PWR operators to report on their plant’s susceptibility to cracking, the steps they had taken to detect it, and their plans for addressing the problem in the future. Any licensee that did not plan to inspect the reactor vessel head for signs of cracking by December 31, 2001 was required to justify operation beyond that date.
In the months following the issuance of Bulletin 2001–01, FENOC submitted five letters to the NRC, arguing that its past inspections were adequate to assure safe operation until February or March 2002, at which time the plant had a prescheduled shut-down. The indictment charges that in order to persuade the NRC that their plant was safe to operate until the prescheduled shutdown, FENOC engineers and contractors—including Geisen, Siemaszko, and Cook—presented false information in its submissions to the NRC. The indictment further charges that the defendants prepared and submitted false and misleading responses to the NRC’s bulletin and concealed material information, eventually persuading the NRC that Davis–Besse was safe to continue operation until February 15, 2002.
Upon the scheduled shutdown in March 2002, workers discovered a pineapple-sized cavity in the head of the reactor vessel at Davis-Besse. Subsequent analysis showed that this hole was the result of corrosive reactor coolant leaking through a nozzle crack.
In addition to alleging false and misleading statements to the NRC, the indictment alleges that Geisen, Siemaszko, and Cook lied about the extent of inspections done in 1996, 1998, and 2000. Specifically, the indictment alleges that the defendants lied by writing:
That Davis–Besse engineers were able to inspect areas of the reactor vessel head that could not, in fact, be inspected; and That Davis–Besse engineers had completed boric acid corrosion control procedures that had not been completed.
Two of the defendants, Geisen and Siemaszko, are also charged with providing the NRC with photographs bearing captions that falsely indicate generally good conditions for visual inspections.
As a result of the deferred prosecution agreement, FENOC will pay more than $23 million in fines and will spend an additional $4.3 million on community service projects. These projects include a wetlands restoration project at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge ($800,000) and improvements to the Visitors Center ($550,000); a communications systems upgrade for the Ottawa County Emergency Management Association ($500,000); a project aimed at developing energy efficient technologies at the University of Toledo, College of Engineering ($500,000); a project to extend the Towpath Trail at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park ($1,000,000); and a project for the Northern Ohio Chapter of Habitat for Humanity for the construction of EPA Energy Star certified homes ($1,000,000).
The investigation and prosecution are being conducted jointly by the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department and by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio, as well as the NRC Office of Investigations. Special agents of the NRC’s Office of Investigations and a Senior Reactor Inspector from NRC’s Region III ably developed the case and referred it to the Department of Justice. The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.