Whistleblowers at nuclear plant recognized

A new documentary explores the dangerous stabilization work that followed an infamous 1979 nuclear plant accident—and the struggle among the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, contractors and a handful of whistleblowers who stopped matters from getting even worse.

A recent documentary draws attention to whistleblowers who stepped up to save colleagues and the public from exposure to grave dangers from cleanup operations in the years after the infamous 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pa.

The film reminds feds—and workers with hazardous jobs of all kinds—of the importance of whistleblowers, and the need to strengthen existing but often weak, private- and government-sector whistleblower protections.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is publicizing the documentary, “Meltdown: Three Mile Island,” which focuses on the dangers to the public health that continued subsequent to the accident—well into the 1980s—and the handful of heroic workers on site who blew the whistle, sacrificing their careers, just to get a modicum of safety restored to the operation.

“Whistleblowers, residents, journalists, regulators and others recount the events, controversies, and lingering effects of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania,” GAP said of the film, which is currently available on Netflix. “The documentary, anchored by [GAP] client Richard Parks, who came forward to expose the willful disregard of safety risks in the US’s most infamous nuclear power plant, reveals the necessity of whistleblowers in keeping the public safe and corporations accountable.”

The documentary exposes the “potential costs whistleblowers face for their moral courage, demonstrating the necessity of stronger protections for whistleblowers so that brave citizens like Parks don’t have to watch their lives fall apart because of their commitment to the truth,” GAP added.

In March 1979, Three Mile Island nuclear power plant’s Unit 2—due to mismanagement, equipment failures and design flaws—suffered an operational crisis ending in a partial meltdown of the highly radioactive core, endangering the wider public and threatening to become a far more dangerous total meltdown with a massive radioactive release.

The meltdown, though it was stopped short of breaching the containment building, put workers in extreme peril, caused a greater-than-normal radiation release and is widely recognized as one of the most hazardous nuclear accidents in U.S. history. Lesser-known additional dangers to the public—also extreme—loomed during the ensuing years of cleanup operations, and were only headed off because of the bravery of a handful of whistleblowers.

Richard Parks, one of the Three Mile Island cleanup whistleblowers featured in the documentary, added his thoughts on the experience and the indispensability of whistleblowers. He was a contractor at the time, and he is very direct in his criticism of the failures of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its failure to stave off shoddy work. 

“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 [incorrect] parts, cheat on maintenance, and unfortunately, even continue to threaten and retaliate against personnel identifying nuclear safety concerns,” Parks said.

Parks also wanted to remind on-site workers of all kinds that, in the end, even today everyone relies on their tenacity and honesty, and willingness to come forward in a crunch—because, sadly, we cannot count on upper management or overseers up the line to do the right thing.

“In an ever more divided society that has lost immeasurable trust in our government and our agencies,” Parks said, “the only nuclear people that can be relied upon are the people at the actual controls of the plant.”

This standing need for lower and mid-level workers to be vigilant and blow the whistle if need be isn’t limited to employees of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or the nuclear industry. It extends to all points of danger in our technological economy—heavy industry, transportation, agriculture and elsewhere.

GAP works with whistleblowers from start to finish, and offers resources online and offline to help those who must face down bad management and indifference to stop waste, fraud and abuse—sometimes, a necessity not just to save money but to save lives.

NEXT STORY: Shutdown averted

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