GAO Probes FirstEnergy-Owned Nuclear Plant

The investigative arm of Congress is looking into the federal government's handling of problems at a nuclear plant owned by FirstEnergy (search) - the Ohio-based utility at the center of the investigation into last week's blackout.

FirstEnergy's nuclear plant, shuttered since early last year, is the subject of an investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (search). The General Accounting Office, in turn, has been exploring the adequacy of NRC's inspection of the plant since late last year.

"The objectives of the job are to look at events surrounding the shut down of the nuclear plant and the angle the GAO (search) in studying is the NRC's oversight of that plant," said Jim Wells, the GAO's chief for nuclear-related investigations.

Wells said the investigation, which began in December, would be completed in April and that results would be made public after they were sent to Congress.

The GAO is acting at the request by four members of Congress - Sen. George Voinovich R-Ohio, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio and Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio.

The request came after criticism of the NRC's handling of the Davis-Besse plant owned by FirstEnergy Corp., the Akron based electric conglomerate that owns four of the five Ohio power lines that tripped, a major failure during last week's blackout.

Wells said the GAO investigation would look at "how the NRC is addressing these major issues and the adequacy of the NRC inspection process with respect to the Davis-Besse plant."

The plant along western Lake Erie hasn't been operational since it went down for maintenance in February 2002. A month later, a leak was discovered where boric acid had eaten through much of a 6-inch-thick steel cap covering the plant's reactor vessel.

It was the most extensive corrosion ever at a U.S. nuclear reactor and led to a nationwide review of 69 other plants.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said the damage ranked at the agency's most serious level for safety problems.

When the damage was discovered, FirstEnergy expected the plant to be closed for three months. But the startup date has been continually pushed back because of prolonged repairs throughout the plant.

FirstEnergy Corp.'s shares fell more than 9 percent Monday. Merrill Lynch & Co. (search) also downgraded its rating on FirstEnergy from "buy" to "neutral."

The shares fell $2.86 to close at $27.75 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, met with FirstEnergy officials Monday about the company's performance during a recent string of severe storms in northern Ohio.

A member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Strickland said he is worried increased scrutiny on FirstEnergy will detract from Congress' ability to deal with the larger issue of upgrading the nation's transmission system.

"I am concerned that when we go back in session that we may be looking for a scapegoat, and that we will fail to look at the real problem," Strickland said. "We have known for a long time - certainly since the deregulation of the electric industry - that our transmission was antiquated and inadequate."

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said it was "unfair to point the finger," during the preliminary stages of the blackout investigation. "We came out early and said there were some issues with our system. We don't think they caused it."

FirstEnergy had hoped to restart its nuclear plant, Davis-Besse, in early August but the NRC will make the final decision on when the plant can resume operations.

Some critics in Congress have questioned whether the NRC bowed to pressure from FirstEnergy Corp. and allowed the utility to keep Davis-Besse operating despite concerns about the reactor lid.

The NRC has rejected allegations that it put profits ahead of safety, but agreed to make changes to its safety and inspection procedures after conceding it should have detected the damage sooner.