When Linda Mitchell landed a job at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near Phoenix, she thought she had found the Cadillac of nuclear power plants. Now she thinks it's an Edsel.
Mitchell, an electrical engineer, mother of four and grandmother of two, can now add "whistle-blower" to her resume. She has become the central figure in yet another story about how badly the nuclear power industry does its dangerous job and how federal regulators look the other way.
Palo Verde is owned by the Arizona Public Service Co. and is the largest nuclear facility in the country. Mitchell has become a crusader against what she sees as gross safety problems at the plant.
Now federal officials are reviewing Mitchell's charges that the Arizona Public Service Co. confounded the safety problems by trying to foil a government investigation of the plant. Mitchell has filed a complaint with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission alleging that Arizona Public Service tried to discredit an NRC investigator after he found serious safety problems at Palo Verde.
The story began in March 1989 with a near disaster at Palo Verde. The plant had to be shut down during a power failure. The emergency backup lighting system at the plant failed during the blackout. In the dark, operators goofed the shutdown procedure and two other plant workers stepped in, corrected the mistake and averted a calamity.
When the NRC found out, Arizona Public Service was fined $250,000 for failing to maintain the lighting system and for other violations.
Several months later, when an NRC inspector checked the lighting system, Mitchell told him it had not been fixed, and she gave him the documents to prove it.
Our associate Scott Sleek obtained a copy of NRC inspector Charles Ramsey's report confirming that the lighting system still did not work.
The trouble was just beginning for both Mitchell and Ramsey. Mitchell claims that she heard a discussion in which her bosses planned how to get the NRC to take inspector Ramsey off their backs. The company ended up accusing Ramsey of misconduct on a technicality. The NRC, which would rather betray its own inspectors than upset the industry it is supposed to regulate, put the company's complaints in Ramsey's personnel file. He protested, and the NRC had to back off and remove the offending entry.
Arizona Public Service officials denied any wrongdoing and said they are upgrading the lighting system.
Mitchell, who has 25 years of experience in nuclear energy, said she has paid a price for telling the truth. She claims she and her husband have been threatened anonymously.
The Palo Verde case reinforces public fears about the nuclear power industry. If the nation is ever going to have the confidence to rely on nuclear power instead of dirty coal-burning power plants, the industry needs to keep its nose clean and the regulators need to do their job.
Mitchell is not optimistic after her experience as a whistle-blower. "If this is the future of nuclear energy," she said, "we're in trouble in this country."