By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The whistle-blowers interviewed by New Times are not wild-eyed zealots bent on forcing the nuclear genie back into the bottle. On the contrary, they are ardent nuclear-power proponents, sober industry careerists who insist that nuclear plants are safe--if they are operated correctly.
They are simply ordinary people with an urgent message: Palo Verde is not as safe as it should be.
"There are two million people who stand to be affected if something goes wrong at Palo Verde," Mitchell says. "We owe it to the people in this state to stand up and scream when a problem could be dangerous to them.
"Palo Verde treats safety concerns raised by whistle-blowers like some kind of joke. But I don't think the lives of two million people is something to joke about."
@body:The alarm went off at Palo Verde early on March 3, 1989. Problems with the Unit 3 reactor sent engineers scrambling to shut it down before it could overheat. In the control room, frantic technicians hovered over switches that were designed to release a dangerous build-up of steam in the plant's generators. But the switches didn't work. A back-up system also failed to open the necessary release valves.
Two workers were dispatched to open the valves manually. But as they neared the valves, they were stopped cold, frozen by near-total darkness. The plant's emergency lighting system had also failed, and the workers were forced to grope around blindly, wasting precious minutes as pressure continued to mount.
Finally, one technician, reaching out in the blacked-out room, found the valve and was able to release the steam. But not before the plant had come perilously close to having a major accident. If the pressure had risen much higher, NRC documents say, radioactive steam and water could have burst through generator pipes and into the atmosphere.
After investigating the incident, the NRC slapped Palo Verde with a $250,000 fine for neglecting to train workers to deal with such a crisis and for failing to maintain the emergency lighting system.
The NRC said Palo Verde had breached some of the most fundamental rules of nuclear-power generation. The agency wrote that the stiff fine was warranted because Palo Verde had been repeatedly warned that the lighting system didn't work. Plant managers failed to fix the system, the NRC chided, even though they knew of its problems. They knew because Linda Mitchell had told them. And told them. And told them--again and again, for more than four years.
The story of Mitchell's battle with plant officials was thoroughly documented by the U.S. Labor Department judge who presided over her 1991 lawsuit against APS. It begins with Mitchell's arrival at Palo Verde in 1985.
A diminutive but fiery woman, Mitchell was brimming with anticipation. A 20-year veteran of the nuclear industry in Maryland, she was eager to begin her duties at the "Cadillac of nuclear power plants" in the desert, where Palo Verde's white-domed containment buildings were then rising. But her buoyant demeanor was soon deflated.
"It took me about a week to see the plant wasn't moving in the right direction," Mitchell says. "I soon found out that plant management didn't care about anything except expense.
"I guess I was naive. Every place I had been, you brought up a problem and it was fixed right away. Here, if you brought up a problem, even if you did it through the proper chain of command and in the best interests of the company, you became the problem."
Mitchell's job was to ensure that the plant's emergency lights, which are supposed to illuminate vital areas during a crisis, were properly positioned and equipped with battery packs that would allow them to burn for eight hours.
"To have a license from the NRC," she says, "you have to have good emergency lights, but I knew the ones we had wouldn't make it for eight hours. So I tried to get management to put in new ones." Copies of internal Palo Verde memos show she was repeatedly rebuffed, despite written and oral pleas to her supervisors.
Frustrated, Mitchell approached Palo Verde's resident NRC inspector, who is available to field complaints if management fails to fix a safety problem. The inspector ordered a test of the lights. As Mitchell had predicted, they failed miserably. Some lights burned for less than an hour before flickering out.
As a result, Palo Verde was forced in late 1985 to write a report to the NRC on the light problems and what steps would be taken to fix them.
"My life became a living hell after that," Mitchell says. "Management took the position that you just don't take things to the NRC. It was almost like I started a war."
For committing the heretical act of notifying federal officials about a serious safety violation, Mitchell was called a liar by a Palo Verde supervisor, who, according to court documents, screamed at her in the plant hallways. APS made minor improvements to the lights, but not enough to satisfy Mitchell.
"They still didn't work right, and I knew it," she says. "But the plant didn't believe it for four years, until the lights failed when they were most needed."
After the March 1989 reactor incident, Mitchell felt confident that a strong rebuke from the NRC--confirming her accusations about the unresponsiveness of Palo Verde supervisors--and the $250,000 fine would finally prompt APS to act. Surely, plant managers couldn't ignore a tongue-lashing like this: