WASHINGTON - August 6 - Andrew Siemaszko, a former nuclear safety engineer at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, will go on trial this Friday for allegedly lying to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about conditions leading to a near-disaster at the plant in 2002. NRC documents, however, show that Siemaszko is not to blame. It was FirstEnergy, the plant's owners, which falsified reports to the NRC, not Siemaszko. In fact, Siemaszko was one work shift away from discovering the problem at Davis-Besse while cleaning the reactor head in 2000, but FirstEnergy prevented him from completing his task.
"Andrew Siemaszko is being used as a scapegoat," said Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project. "FirstEnergy and the NRC deserve the blame, not an engineer who was simply trying to do his job and keep the plant safe."
In 2002, after several deferred inspections, operators of the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, Ohio, discovered that boric acid had eaten a football-size hole in the reactor vessel. If it had gone undetected for another several months, it could have caused a worse accident than the 1979 core meltdown at Three Mile Island.
The NRC knew about boric acid leaks at reactors sharing Davis-Besse's design. On August 3, 2001, the NRC warned owners of a dozen plants across the country that it would shut down any reactor that had not been inspected for boric acid leaks by December 31, 2001. FirstEnergy, which was undergoing a merger with General Public Utilities, argued successfully several times to postpone inspections and keep Davis-Besse running. The merger negotiations apparently prompted FirstEnergy to avoid any appearance of problems at Davis-Besse by keeping the reactor generating electricity.
After the problem was discovered, the federal government fined FirstEnergy $33.5 million for violating safety standards, the largest fine of its kind in the history of commercial nuclear power. The NRC also conducted an investigation of what went wrong at Davis-Besse. It focused on the role of four engineers at the plant. The NRC forwarded the results of its investigation to the Department of Justice, which chose to prosecute the engineers for lying to the NRC.
A two-year grand jury investigation resulted in charges against three of the four engineers: David Geisen, Rodney Cook and Andrew Siemaszko. A fourth engineer, Prasoon Goyal, agreed to testify against the other three and was not prosecuted.
Geisen and Cook were tried together. Geisen had supervised some of the cleanup and inspection work on the reactor. Cook was a consultant who worked with FirstEnergy to report to the NRC on cleanup and inspections. On October, 31, 2007, a jury convicted Geisen on three of five counts of lying to the NRC. The jury acquitted his alleged co-conspirator, Rodney Cook, of all four charges against him.
On May 1, 2008, Geisen was sentenced to a $7,500 fine, three years of probation, four months of house arrest, and 200 hours of community service. He could have received a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Siemaszko's trial is set to begin on August 8 at the United States District Court in Toledo, Ohio. He was in charge of cleaning and inspecting the reactor head in April 2000. Prosecutors say he falsified work orders that FirstEnergy cited in its letters to the NRC arguing to keep the reactor operating. But NRC did not take Siemaszko's April 2000 inspection into account when making its decision to permit Davis-Besse to continue operating into 2002. This is a key point because NRC regulations say that in order for someone to be convicted of lying to agency, that lie must be material to NRC's decisionmaking process. But NRC documents show that even if Siemaszko falsified his work orders, the NRC did not consider those work orders relevant to its decision to allow FirstEnergy to keep operating the reactor.
In April 2000, Siemaszko had been working 16-hour shifts cleaning boric acid buildup from the reactor vessel. During the cleanup, the reactor vessel had to be shut down. After cleaning areas on the vessel, Siemaszko could inspect the surface and look for cracks and holes from the boric acid. Despite the NRC's repeated warnings about the danger of boric acid leaks, FirstEnergy prevented Siemaszko from completing the reactor vessel cleaning so it could restart the reactor and keep generating electricity. Had Siemaszko completed the cleaning, he would have found the hole caused by the ongoing boric acid leak.
The NRC and federal prosecutors claim that Siemaszko's work order for the reactor cleaning was false. They claim that Siemaszko stated he had cleaned and inspected the entire reactor vessel. But a look at the work order shows this is not true. Siemaszko never signed the section of the work order pertaining to inspecting and cleaning the reactor container. Siemaszko did sign two other sections, but they pertained to replacing covers on the reactor and installing scaffolding.
Days later, however, Siemaszko submitted a "condition report." Nuclear engineers use such reports to notify plant managers of problems ranging from burned out lightbulbs to near-meltdown dangers. Siemaszko's report summarized the NRC's warning to plant owners regarding boric acid leaks. It also noted that he had not been able to fully clean the reactor. FirstEnergy managers ignored the report.
Finally, NRC documents show that the agency was aware of that Siemaszko did not completely clean and inspect the reactor but disregarded that fact in its decision to allow FirstEnergy to continue operating. Because the NRC has admitted it did not take Siemaszko's work into account, it doesn't matter whether or not Siemaszko lied to the agency. Under NRC regulations, only relevant falsifications are violations of the law.