The Concrete Wall of Silence

Written by Rick Parks

To learn more about our work with Rick Parks, watch “Meltdown: Three Mile Island” on Netflix, and check out our page here.

            Recently, the American Nuclear Society published a one-hour long video of an interview with Lake Barrett, an internationally recognized expert on damaged nuclear reactors, in response to the Netflix Documentary; Meltdown: Three Mile Island. My name is Rick Parks. I am the whistleblower featured in that documentary.

I was and remain one of three men that eventually had to “blow the whistle” to draw attention to the situation we were faced with in early 1983 during the cleanup of the damaged Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor. At that time, Lake Barrett was the lead person of the on-site NRC Inspection and Enforcement Division.

The accident in 1979 revealed to the world many issues that contributed to the accident; not the least among them ineffective oversight by the NRC and a pervasive attitude within the upper management of the utility that fostered a willingness to operate a nuclear reactor outside the boundaries of the Technical Specifications of the license and to falsify and/or destroy documents required by the NRC to be maintained as official records. It also showed the world how woefully unprepared the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was with respect to what could go wrong in the real world. To put it bluntly; it was an issue of “Management Integrity” both in the industry and the NRC itself.

I came to Three Mile Island in 1980, a Senior Startup Engineer employed by a contract Nuclear Consulting firm brought in to develop the requisite test program for the recovery of the plant (yes at that time the push was to ‘recover’) and the installation of a system to remove and process the almost one million gallons of high-level radioactive water in the basement of the Reactor Building. I was assigned to the newly hired Startup and Test Manager. We were the Test Department. My assignment was as Assistant Startup and Test Manager; the ‘de facto’ manager had to attend an abbreviated training program to obtain his Senior Reactor Operator’s license. I served as the ‘de jure’ Test Manager for that program.

Concurrent to these events, Larry King was hired and installed as the Plant Operations Manager and later promoted to Director of Site Operation, responsible for all personnel in the Operations, Maintenance, Plant Engineering, Radiological Controls, Plant Chemistry, Test Department, etc. If it had anything to do with the plant, Larry King’s was the last signature to obtain before it was to be implemented in the plant. Larry King had twenty-plus years of Nuclear Reactor operations and design experience, was a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy, and was handpicked by then Captain Rickover to be a First Chief Engineer for the United States Nuclear Ship Savannah. Not a position to assign someone that did not know what they were doing.

            Larry’s position mandated two assistants requiring an SRO license, or equivalent. The position title was “Operations Engineer.” My GPU counterpart was a licensed SRO at the plant. I had been previously certified, by GPU, as a Certified Level III Nuclear Test Engineer -the highest level- in accordance with the applicable Nuclear ANSI requirements at the time. Our duties were to serve as the liaison representatives for Larry in any function requiring his involvement. We reviewed virtually all of the plant paperwork that required his involvement that was not marked personal to him or by him.

Ed Gischel was a Registered Professional Nuclear Engineer with twenty-plus years of Nuclear Reactor operations and design. Additionally, during the 1970’s, Ed was a member of the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) Working Board that developed the standards governing the use of all cranes, lifting gear, etc. utilized in and around Nuclear Power Plants. This included the use of the Polar Crane. Ed was an expert on cranes and was the Director of Plant Engineering that reported to Larry King.

The training I received in the Nuclear Navy was performed by men from Ed and Larry’s generation (1950’s – 1960’s). The men from my generation (1960’s-1970’s) stood on the shoulders of the lessons learned the hard way by men who had taken the nuclear envelope to extents few believed possible and where even fewer had gone. It was an honor to work with these two giants of the earliest days of Nuclear Propulsion. The three of us had spent more than our fair share on both nuclear submarines and surface ships. The motto of the Submarine Service is “The Silent Service” while the motto regarding the sailors is “steel boats, iron men.” The latter describes both Larry and Ed.

Lake Barrett states in the video that the NRC and the Industry willingly implemented the Naval Nuclear Management Philosophy following the accident. It could be considered ironic that when the on-site NRC and GPU was confronted with three men insisting all the work done by the contractor be in compliance with the regulations and codes the NRC held Larry King and the operational staff of the plant to, GPU willingly allowed the contractor in question to continuously ignore the requirements. The NRC sat idly by on the sidelines even after being informed of threats and efforts to intimidate the other two and me.

Lake Barrett simply omits any and all references to the technical issues/safety related issues, etc. raised internally by Larry, Ed and myself. Worse, he states he advised me to take the issue of the Polar Crane to his management if I was unsatisfied. That is simply false. I reported a retaliatory threat to my job resulting from raising nuclear safety related questions to upper management and advised the NRC I&E representative of the issues involved. One week later I was summoned to the NRC Office on site (which I routinely visited in the course of my duties) and was advised personally by Lake Barrett that the NRC had “looked at the Polar Crane and could find no issues with it.” He advised me that I could request the NRC Office of Investigations look into the issue if I wished. I demurred and advised that I would await the results of the QA Managers determination regarding a stop work order on the project.

One week later, following additional reprisals against me because I refused to withdraw my comments on the use of the polar crane procedures, I reported back to the NRC to request an OI investigation only to be informed the NRC considered the issue an “employee-employer relationship problem” and gave me the number to file a complaint with the Department of Labor.  The lack of support provided by Lake Barrett and the NRC left me no choice. I went public.

From the onset of the compressed timeline schedule to lift the Reactor Vessel Head (beginning in or around late January to early February 1983) the Site Operations group learned of many repairs that were not like-kind and many other issues. We raised these issues and as a result Larry King refused to approve the procedures. Larry was fired. Ed Gischel identified every technical deficiency with the procedures that violated the ANSI standards and, in some cases, common sense. Ed was subjected to the requirement to obtain a neuropsychiatric evaluation because his mental health suddenly became an issue with Upper Management at GPU.

To contrast the actual events, the ANS video seeks to discredit my concerns by stating I was not an Engineer; that is true I was and am not. My qualifications “only” included over 13 years’ experience in operating and maintaining nuclear reactors. Previous positions prior to TMI included those of Reactor Operator, Senior Reactor; Certified Level III Nuclear Test Engineer; two plus approximately three years’ experience as an instructor on a Naval version of the B&W Reactor that included the same issues with the Pilot Operated Relief Valve that led to the accident scenario. At TMI2, I was the present Alternate Startup and Test Supervisor for Unit II at TMI2; was the previous Assistant Startup and Test Manager for the Recovery at TMI2 and helped develop and implement the Recovery Test Manual.  Bechtel sought me to return to TMI2 to occupy the positions I held. I did not solicit employment from them.

My whistleblowing colleagues were highly qualified, professional, seasoned nuclear engineers to say the least. Worse, Ed was one of their own at ANS and an ANS member. Ed’s concerns, and The Video interview did not include a question to Lake about Larry’s refusal to allow use of the crane. Lake attempted to smother my credentials with faint praise as only coming from “experience in the Navy” and continued to state the whole problem was due to a procedure dispute about which I simply had no true safety concerns.

I am chagrined the ANS member was quick to seek to discredit the concern about decay heat. I was not, nor was anyone else to my memory, concerned with loss of coolant being a decay heat problem. The true concern, should such an event ever happen, was a loss of the water inside the Reactor Vessel that provided shielding to personnel inside the compartment. We had no way of readily re-flooding the Reactor or keeping up with sufficient loss rate due to a mechanical fracture of the In Core Instrument Guide Tubes. Since the pressure boundary provided by the Reactor Building Penetration Enclosures had been relaxed and never re-established following the frantic first-year tie-ins to accommodate access, a pathway to the environment could not be prevented.

Should a fracture from dropping a heavy load result in movement of fuel to the point a critical mass could be achieved, the water could soon boil off and radioactive mass ejection inside the Reactor Building could theoretically occur. Was there much chance of it happening? Hopefully not. Were the chances zero? Absolutely not. This was the focal point of Ed’s concerns. In his opinion, a Registered Professional Nuclear Engineer, the chances of disturbing the core adequately or fracturing a line or lines allowing the water inside the vessel to drain was totally dependent upon what was dropped and where. I trusted Ed’s judgment that the potential existed to cause another accident, this one potentially threatening the East Coast.

It did not surprise me that they both conveniently forgot all about the crane breaking down in the process of lifting the Reactor Vessel Head. The head was left in mid-air suspended above the Reactor Vessel. Two to three days were required to fix the defective part which turned out to be an improper not-like-kind part installed on the crane brake system. The alleged NRC review Lake Barrett assured me had been performed finding no problems apparently missed this safety related issue. The crane use was delayed while the investigations went on for over a period of months. It was eventually tested and passed only to fail at the most critical time. The NRC issued a fine to the utility because of the events this failure caused. Omission? Commission? Or simply “The Mission”. Concrete Walls of Silence to protect the ones not deserving of it.

The video irrefragably shows the problem that existed before the accident; in 1983 during the clean-up and today in the attitude of the ANS member and Lake Barrett. It continues to be a microcosm of all that is wrong with the Nuclear Industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Deny – Deflect – Diminish, and finally, Discredit the individual(s) involved. Overpower them with lawyers or tie them up without recourse in multiple government agencies. The overarching effect is to quash any dissent and reluctance to do exactly as you are told – consequences be damned. Just blame it on the operations staff as the utility as the NRC quickly did following the accident. For an eye-opening history, one should spend time in the archives reading what really happened behind the scenes the public saw at TMI2. I will save you time, and skip the self-serving reports from the TMIPO of the NRC.

No regulatory body with any position of authority rarely ever admits to a mistake and will typically seek to cooperate with those they are tasked to regulate to the maximum extent believable to pass unnoticed by the Bureaucrats appointed above them. The video lays claim to every improvement technologically and management philosophy possible in the industry. I pray they are correct.

It is undeniable that Nuclear needs to be a part of America’s energy equation. I support that. The intent of the documentary was to bring to the attention of Nuclear Power Plant personnel and the American Public that it has been demonstrably shown over the years that upper management within nuclear utilities are still too quick to use un-like kind parts, cheat on maintenance, and unfortunately, even continue to threaten and retaliate against personnel identifying nuclear safety concerns.

The NRC is a bureaucracy (yes, at times a Kakistocracy – loosely defined as leadership by the inept) where anyone above the front-line level is too frequently tempted by the revolving door concept of jumping into the industry regulated for three times the salary, or the typical functionary attribute of not drawing attention to their actions while seeking plausible deniability.

Because so many of the nuclear plant operators are ex-navy, the NRC and the Utilities rely on the concrete walls of silence that surround the nuclear plants. The operators are in the habit of not discussing plant issues because the average American would have trouble understanding much of what they would discuss. Besides, they have witnessed in many cases what happens to someone speaking out. They need a bigger stick to protect themselves with should we expect them to.

For anyone to believe that Larry King, Ed Gischel, and I threw our careers down the drain because of a difference of opinion over which procedure to use is the living definition of an oxymoron. For anyone to accept that explanation at face value without the slightest arch of an eyebrow is a living definition of sycophantic.

Nobody is pushed to the limits of speaking out publicly to seek fame and notoriety. Nor are they seeking financial reward. From dealing with many people over the years that chose to speak publicly regarding violations of government regulations, public safety laws, food safety laws, etc. I can say without fail they were motivated only by the belief there was a major issue that people were not aware of and posed a danger to fellow workers or the general public.

In an ever more divided society that has lost immeasurable trust in our government and our agencies, the only nuclear people that can be relied upon are the people at the actual controls of the plant. It is those people we must depend upon to step forward and identify issues involving nuclear safety in power plants and nuclear waste disposal. Yes, the same group should be in charge – both short and long-term. They are the true last line of protection the American public can rely on to protect us, the general public, from dangerous lapses in Management Integrity (both in the industry and the NRC).

The public can’t count on the NRC. If the NRC’s trustworthiness was to be converted to nuclear energy it would be unable to power a fire ant’s motorcycle around a BB.

It is always utility management’s right to manage any way they wish with respect to making the business profitable and stable. It is never management’s right to manage a nuclear plant unsafely in any respect. If this nation is serious about Nuclear Power, Congress should mandate that all nuclear workers have a legal recourse against the utility and the NRC should have actual nuclear safety concerns that the utility or the NRC choose to gamble with. Nuclear Power Plant workers from beginning to end of the chain must have the strongest of possible Whistleblower Protection; the American General Public deserves nothing less.