The fire gutted the home of NRC senior inspector Ken Jenison on Thursday after he received four threatening phone calls, commission spokesman Ken Clark said. Jenison then discovered that his car had been sabotaged as he left the plant to go to his burning home, Clark said. No one was hurt.
The NRC said it believes the fire was in retaliation for Jenison's work at the nuclear power plant, and labeled it the worst violence against an inspector in the federal regulatory agency's history.
"We have a rather intensive investigation going," said William Baugh, special agent in charge of the FBI in Knoxville. "Every agent in the southern part of the state is working on this."
Hamilton County sheriff's officials labeled the fire "suspicious in origin," until the investigation is complete. A smashed window led investigators to conclude that the home might have been firebombed.
The FBI refused to comment on whether any suspects had been identified. Another NRC inspector at Sequoyah said authorities suspect disgruntled former employees of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the plant near Chattanooga.
"From the nature of the threatening phone calls, it sounded like the caller was upset that he had lost his job because of some of the things Ken had done," NRC inspector Paul Harmon said. "But there's nothing he's done that we could point to. This is kind of out of the blue to us." The TVA, which has been cutting costs to control electric rates, announced in March that it will lay off 230 employees at Sequoyah, a twin-reactor plant plagued by safety violations.
The plant was closed four years for safety problems until 1988. Last week, the NRC staff proposed fining the TVA $75,000 for two safety violations at Sequoyah, and $240,000 for allegedly harassing whistle blowers who raised safety concerns at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, which is under construction at Spring City, Tenn.
Jenison received two threatening phone calls at home Wednesday evening and two more at the plant Thursday before the fire at his house five miles away, officials said. His wife and two children were not home at the time.
Thursday's caller reportedly told Jenison that his house would be burned, and he started for home when a neighbor phoned to report the fire, Clark said.
"He said that when he left the plant to get in his car to go see about his home, he noticed that on one wheel of the car, one lug nut was missing and three were loose," Clark said.