Nuclear Whistleblowers Protected the Public from Disaster. Now We Must Protect their Right to Speak Up.
A new Netflix documentary released this spring, Meltdown: Three Mile Island, traced how brazen nuclear safety violations in the Three Mile Island (TMI) cleanup threatened a full meltdown that would’ve taken out the East Coast. It was prevented only because the top three engineers leading the cleanup process blew the whistle. Their story illustrates how freedom of speech can and has changed the course of history.
Whistleblowers are those who use speech to challenge abuses of power that betray the public trust. The TMI near-miss puts an exclamation point on why those with the courage to speak out deserve gold standard legal rights against retaliation.
In the U.S., too often those rights are fool’s gold. The U.S. pioneered whistleblower protection, but our laws are so dated compared to global best practices that now; in key respects, they are dinosaur rights when compared to countries in Africa, Europe, and the South Pacific. The stranger than fiction truth revealed in Meltdown vividly illustrates why this is unacceptable.
After the 1979 partial meltdown at TMI, the red-hot radioactive debris left behind had to be cleaned or removed. The owner, General Public Utilities (GPU), hired the politically connected Bechtel Corporation to finish the job quickly and obtain government approval of the effort. Larry King as project manager, Rick Parks as procedures chief, and Ed Gischel as engineering chief were the field managers responsible to see the job was done right. To no avail, they protested systematic violations of nuclear safety and quality control regulations that Bechtel and GPU overrode because they would slow up production and block government bonus payments for a speedy cleanup.
Matters came to a head in March 1983 when the cleanup was scheduled to use a polar crane to remove the reactor vessel head – the core of radioactive rubble that remained. The problem is that the polar crane’s brakes and electrical system had been totaled in the accident, and the GPU/Bechtel team did not want to spend the time conducting load tests to verify the repairs were successful so the crane would work at the moment of truth. Gischel’s calculations indicated that if the crane failed at various spots during the removal process, it would cause a complete meltdown.
King refused orders to sign off that the operation was legal and safe and was quickly fired. But the local Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) resident inspector acted as the rubber stamp King refused to be, even after Parks brought the quality control problems to his attention. The full Commission was poised for final approval to commence the next stage of the cleanup process using the polar crane.
Parks was stripped of his duties after protesting all the violations and contacted Government Accountability Project to blow the whistle. Five days before the Commission vote, Parks and our legal team rolled up our sleeves, working 40 out of 48 hours to prepare a 57-page affidavit and a retaliation complaint for harassment that went beyond the workplace, including breaking into Parks’ house and planting drugs in his car.
The whistleblowing counterattack launched the Monday before a Wednesday Commission vote. The legal and advocacy strategy delivered the truth about the cleanup dangers into the right congressional and community hands; a media campaign climaxed by dueling press conferences with GPU and Bechtel that maximized the spotlight. The house of cards collapsed. The Commissioners blinked and postponed approving the head lift. The NRC was unable to defend itself at subsequent congressional hearings and then turned on the utility. After an in-depth probe, NRC investigators found the cleanup systematically illegal and ordered it to be done again. There were extensive further repairs on the polar crane, which passed its load tests. Nonetheless, after over a year of repairs, the crane still froze repeatedly during a harrowing head lift. It is terrifying to think what would have happened a year earlier if the crane had been used as-is.
The TMI whistleblowers whose decisions to speak out to expose government and corporate fraud, waste, and abuse are hardly an aberration. Disclosures by others have:
- prevented completion of numerous nuclear power plants that were accidents waiting to happen, such as one being built with melted down junkyard steel;
- sparked removal of an FDA-approved painkiller that had killed nearly as many Americans as died in the Vietnam War;
- forced delivery of mine-resistant armored vehicles to Iraq and Afghanistan that had been gathering dust in warehouses due to corruption, reducing land mines from 60% of casualties to 5% of total casualties;
- exposed that oil industry lobbyists were censoring government climate change research;
- prevented the Federal Air Marshalls from going AWOL due to budget corruption during a 2003 Al Qaeda plan, confirmed by US intelligence, for a more ambitious rerun of 9/11;
- forced removal of incinerators that illegally were spewing arsenic, dioxin, mercury lead and heavy metals into church and school yards in minority neighborhoods;
- exposed illegal, blanket domestic surveillance bringing Big Brother into the homes of nearly all Americans, sparking passage of the USA Freedom Act;
- prevented the mass use of malaria drugs as a miracle cure for COVID-19;
- forced the Transportation Security Administration to start complying with CDC safety standard at airports after TSA’s ban of Personal Protection Equipment and sanitation caused the airports to be primary vectors for the first pandemic wave; and
- stopped the practice of performing nonconsensual, unnecessary hysterectomies and other gynecologic procedures on migrant women in detention.
We could keep going, but the point is clear: whistleblowers and their disclosures are the life blood for the flow of necessary information to responsibly exercise authority. What is amazing is that whistleblowers have gotten these results without credible legal rights. U.S. laws are a disorganized patchwork quilt of over 60 inconsistent, piecemeal statutes passed over the last 70 years, in various stages of antiquity. For example, although they provide the most significant evidence and public warnings, federal employees who blow the whistle do not have a day in court to seek justice from a jury of the citizens they risked their careers to defend. Unlike every other major sector of the U.S. labor force, their free speech rights are limited to administrative hearings by a dysfunctional agency vulnerable to political pressure with a 3,000-case backlog. Police who blow the whistle on abuses that threaten the public must seek justice from the same institutions they exposed.
Whistleblower rights are important to whistleblowers and to all of us who benefit from their courageous truth-telling; only those whose abuses of power can be sustained by secrecy stand to lose from stronger legal protections. Whistleblowers keep the power structure on its toes.
There’s a real chance this year to replace false advertising with genuine rights. We are at a crossroads for serious legislative reform, and 2022 likely will be the moment of truth for whistleblower rights with few prospects in the next Congress. Below is a summary of the six bills that, if enacted, will strengthen protections for the courageous workers whom we depend on to enforce our laws, defend the public from abuses of power, and restore the U.S. to leadership in transparency through freedom of speech.
- The Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act, H.R. 2988, originally part of the Protecting Our Democracy Act, H.R. 5314, would finally protect federal employees targeted in retaliatory investigations, provide a fair chance for temporary relief in cases that commonly take years to resolve, and give them access to juries to defend themselves, like the rest of the American labor force.
- The COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act, H.R. 846 and S.268, not only would close accountability loopholes but also would protect contractors and their employees against all forms of retaliation.
- The Special Inspector General for Law Enforcement Act, H.R. 6762, would end the monopoly of local police departments to investigate themselves and provide comprehensive protection not only for police from the local to federal level, but for victims, citizen witnesses, or anyone else who provides evidence.
- The Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Whistleblower Protection Act, S. 2896, would override a legal technicality that has canceled due process protection for government whistleblowers in the existing nuclear safety law.
- The Whistleblower Protection Reform Act, S. 3877 and H.R. 5485268, would protect the 96% of corporate whistleblowers who raise concerns internally.
- The FTC Whistleblower Act, H.R. 6093, would protect those who challenge big tech, big agriculture, and violations of consumer rights enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.
Passing these laws is the best way to fight corruption. Research consistently indicates that whistleblowers are responsible for exposing and catching more fraud than audit departments, compliance departments and law enforcement combined. Corporations with whistleblower channels that listen to instead of killing the messenger consistently suffer fewer government enforcement actions with weaker penalties and are targeted by less litigation that produces less painful liability or settlements.
The voters get it. A Marist poll before the last election found that 86% of likely voters favor stronger whistleblower laws. But do the politicians? After President Trump’s attacks on whistleblowers due to their impeachment evidence and testimony, the traditional bi-partisan, unanimous support for these rights no longer exists.
How you can help:
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