Maybe it was the glint of sunlight off the gun barrels, or the sudden movement of men silhouetted against the desert sky. Whatever it was that caught Linda Mitchell's eye and caused her to pause by the picture window of her secluded home near Buckeye that day in 1990, the scene outside was terrifying.

There on a ridge, a few hundred yards from Mitchell's house, stood two men with rifles. As Mitchell looked at them with binoculars, they stared back at her through their rifle scopes.

She darted away from the window and locked herself in a bathroom until her husband came home several hours later. By then the gunmen had gone. No shots were fired. Police found only tire tracks where the men had stood.

It was, Mitchell says, just another day in the life of a whistle-blower.
During five years as an engineer at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, Mitchell had served as the plant's self-styled Karen Silkwood--regularly "blowing the whistle" on serious safety violations. Just as regularly, she had been harassed by plant management for her trouble.

"The gunmen were there to send a final message to me," Mitchell says. "If [Palo Verde officials] were capable of carelessness with a nuclear power plant, I knew they were capable of anything, including murder, if that's what it took to shut me up."
There is no evidence linking anyone from Palo Verde or Arizona Public Service Company, which operates the plant, to the gunmen outside Mitchell's home. But it is undeniable that by the day she fell within those rifle cross hairs, Mitchell had been repeatedly targeted by Palo Verde and APS in similarly unnerving ways.

Mitchell and other Palo Verde workers who have dared to point out safety problems at the nation's largest nuclear-power facility--located 60 miles west of downtown Phoenix--have endured persecution ranging from the insidious to the violent. They have been assaulted and threatened with death. Their cars and homes have been shot at and vandalized. They have received menacing telephone calls. Their careers have been destroyed by demotions, transfers and dismissals.

One employee, after complaining that the pumps and valves necessary to shut down the plant's reactors in an emergency were inadequate, was transferred to a post that exposed her to a higher level of radiation, raising the stunning possibility that managers were using the threat of exposure and contamination to keep workers in line. Another worker was branded a "deviant" by an APS-hired psychologist in an effort to discredit her claims that Palo Verde wasn't safe.

Perhaps most disturbing, the record shows that these accounts of abuse are not isolated. In fact, documents compiled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that nowhere is the problem of whistle-blower harassment more pronounced than at Palo Verde. According to the NRC, Palo Verde has more harassment complaints pending against it than any other operating nuclear plant in the nation.

Palo Verde officials refuse to discuss whistle-blower cases. APS spokesman Mark Fallon says only that "our first priority when employees bring concerns to us is to thoroughly investigate each and every allegation. When an allegation is found to have merit, we feel an obligation to employees and the general public to correct those problems." Yet APS is hard-pressed to give a single example of when that has happened.

The record of harassment against whistle-blowers has been well-documented by federal investigators and judges, one of whom called the treatment of such workers "ugly" and warned that there was a "cancer growing" at Palo Verde "which, if allowed to continue, could become catastrophic."

How catastrophic? A review of whistle-blower complaints at Palo Verde over the past five years shows that most stem from legitimate complaints about safety issues that threaten the public welfare. These workers aren't merely griping about whether a form was properly initialed or whether paperwork was filed on time. If the things whistle-blowers are warning us about come to pass, thousands--or even millions--of Arizonans face exposure to radiation.

According to federal law, utilities like APS are supposed to heed worker warnings. The federal system set up to monitor the nation's nuclear power plants was designed in 1946 to encourage reports by conscientious workers, who are in the best position to spot plant defects. The government simply doesn't have enough inspectors to monitor a plant's every move, so workers are often the only observers of safety violations.

But what pioneer nuclear regulators didn't count on was that instead of listening to their workers, some utility companies, burdened by the unexpectedly high costs of producing nuclear power, would subvert the system and silence whistle-blowers who point out the need for necessary but expensive repairs.

They didn't foresee that for a company like APS, it would often be cheaper to pay comparatively small legal fees to fight whistle-blowers in court than to ante up the millions of dollars necessary to actually fix problems (especially when those legal fees are paid directly to the law firm founded by the family of APS' chairman).

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Darrin Hostetler