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Expenses, while less than litigation, are also substantial. Thomas says she has spent $40,000 on legal fees and other expenses. She warns that whistle-blowers with more complicated cases face higher bills. "I got off easy," she says, laughing.
@body:It isn't difficult to figure out why a nuclear power plant would target whistle-blowers.
Cost-cutting is a matter of survival for an industry that wildly overestimated itself 20 years ago by promising that nuclear reactors would light up the nation with power too cheap to meter. Flaws must be repaired at great expense. Sometimes a reactor must be shut down to make those repairs, and the resulting losses may exceed $1 million per day, a sum that can sometimes threaten the very future of the utility.
Such was the situation at APS in the summer of 1989, when harassment against Linda Mitchell began in earnest. None of the plant's three reactors was running. Unit 3 was down because of the March accident; the other two were idled by the NRC because of similar safety problems.
APS was fighting for its life.
From the beginning, Palo Verde had been a cost-overrun nightmare. Estimated to cost $3 billion in 1973, the price tag ballooned to $9 billion by the time Unit 1 was completed in 1985. Combined with slower-than-expected growth in the Valley, the overruns forced APS to hit customers with several rate hikes during the 1970s and 80s that sparked lasting public bitterness and earned Palo Verde the nickname "white elephant of the desert." Even APS president and CEO Mark De Michele confessed in 1985 that building the plant was probably a mistake.
In such an atmosphere, a whistle-blower complaint like Mitchell's can have an explosive effect. Every time a nuclear plant must write a self-critical report, as APS did when Mitchell first pointed out lighting concerns, it affects the plant's NRC "report card." Bad marks frighten stockholders, make the utility a less attractive investment and deter financiers. The stakes are so high that institutionalized harassment to deter whistle-blower complaints can become sound fiscal policy.
"You have to understand that it is oftentimes cheaper for a utility to threaten a whistle-blower, and then pay to fight her if she takes her case to court, than it is to actually fix the safety problem," Colapinto says. "Plus, if one whistle-blower is made an example of, it has a chilling effect and others are less likely to come forward. Utilities save money in the short and long run."
Colapinto points out that the personal damages awarded in the Mitchell and Thomas whistle-blowing cases amount to less than $100,000. "That's not a lot of money for a large utility," he says.
APS points proudly to an NRC survey this year that found that only a few workers were concerned that they would be harassed if they complained to management. But the NRC's Greg Cook acknowledges that the study was "somewhat informal," rather than a scientific polling of workers, and that it leaves unanswered the question of why so many employees are actually complaining of harassment by filing grievances with the Labor Department.
@body:If there is a systematic effort to discourage whistle-blowers, as Mitchell and others claim, workers should be able to turn to their congressionally appointed guardian, the NRC, for help. But according to federal records and the admissions of NRC officials themselves, the agency often does little to aid whistle-blowers or to investigate their concerns.
According to a 1987 congressional investigation, the agency's unwillingness to get tough on utilities in such cases can be attributed to the incestuous relationship between regulators and plant officials. The report, titled "NRC Coziness With Industry," blasted the agency for "abdicating its role as regulator . . . in some critical areas."
"It is a young and still relatively small industry," Mitchell explains. "Everyone has worked for everyone else, all the top managers and regulators are friends, and there is a lot of movement between government jobs and business. The same names keep popping up again and again."
One of those names is that of Ken Carr, former NRC chairman, who is now a member of the APS board of directors. Mitchell asks, "Do you honestly think that when APS has trouble out at Palo Verde, they don't get Ken Carr on the phone doing damage control with the NRC?"
Mark Fallon says Carr's "experience is certainly valuable to APS. But . . . he would never be able to coercively influence regulators. Nor would he, or anyone else at Palo Verde, try."
Critics say the NRC's conduct in the Mitchell case is typical of its tolerant attitude toward nuclear facilities. Blaine Ballard, who called Mitchell a "bitch," and Tim Hull, who threatened that she could meet the same violent end as the "burn dummy," were given written slaps on the wrist by the NRC. Neither was punished by APS.
In addition, federal regulators, as a matter of policy, often allow a worker to remain in a harassment situation indefinitely. It is NRC policy to refrain from seeking civil penalties against a plant that harasses a worker until after the Labor Department issues its ruling. As in Sarah Thomas' case, that can mean years.
Last year, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Regulation, demanded that the NRC inspector general look into how the agency handles whistle-blowing cases.