Left: Davis-Besse nuclear facility, photo courtesy of CBS News.
(Toledo, OH) The announcement this week that FirstEnergy will face a $28 million fine from the federal government for covering up information about the corroded reactor head at the Davis-Besse nuclear facility surprised me; in my jaded middle age I tend to assume that corporate wrongdoing will get swept under the rug, and - at least on the surface - the headlines lead one to believe that justice has been done.
Somewhat lost in the saga are the three individuals indicted by the Justice Department for their roles in the subterfuge. Former employees Andrew J. Siemaszko and David C. Geisen each face five criminal counts, and FirstEnergy consultant Rodney M. Cook faces four. The three men could receive a fine of up to $250,000 and as much as five years in prison.
The potential for disaster in this case was quite high; the corrosion from boric acid ate through the 6.63-inch carbon steel reactor head, coming within fractions of an inch of causing a breech in the reactor core. Think Chernobyl if you are looking for an idea of the magnitude of the possible ramifications of this incident.
It seems to me that these individuals are nothing more than sacrificial offerings to the government. I find it difficult to accept that a handful of middle management types, of their own doing, decided to conceal information about the reactor head.
A quick anecdote: in the 1980s as a young man I was directed by a corporate employer to engage in an act of deception that brought considerable profit to that employer. While I will avoid any specifics (who knows what the statute of limitations is!), it always bothered me that I allowed myself to "play the game" and be tainted with the corporate corruption around me. Worse still, I am sure that I personally profited in the form of future promotions and opportunities, as I was then marked as a real "company man."
I knew full well what I was doing, and chuckled along with my superiors at how "smart" we were for pulling a fast one on a bunch of municipal bureaucrats. It is only as I matured, and recognized the importance of integrity, that I started to look back on that series of events as a moment of personal shame.
Back to the present day...
My suspicion is that these individuals were directed by corporate leaders (at least at the regional VP level) to keep the plant running at all costs while they found a solution. These men had little to gain (save recognition as "good company men") for covering up the potentially catastrophic reactor head corrosion.
First Energy, however, stood to profit from keeping the plant operational.
Dennis Kucinich spoke out against this mockery of the judicial process, correctly noting that the $28 million fine was less than one percent of FirstEnergy's profits.
If the federal government is serious about prosecuting the wrongdoers and holding the feet of the nuclear power industry close to the metaphorical fire, it needs to look higher than the middle management personnel it has cast as the villains in this case.