In 1983, I was a young lawyer representing the local community group trying to stop the restart of the Three Mile Island Unit 1 nuclear reactor -- sister of the crippled Unit 2. We knew that four years earlier, company officials created the conditions that led to the worst commercial nuclear accident in U.S. history, withheld information about its seriousness while the plant was melting down, and continued to lie even after the accident. We thought the evidence against restarting the plant couldn't get any more compelling. But then it did.
A company named Bechtel had been brought in to co-manage the so-called "clean up" of Unit 2 -- a place so highly contaminated and beyond repair that it was eventually mothballed. But for a few years, workers were sent in to this extraordinarily dangerous plant, the condition of which was unprecedented and complex, to do whatever they could do. I didn't know much about Bechtel at the time, but soon learned that this private company was thick as thieves with the nuclear industry, and was about to initiate one of the most alarming violations of public trust that we had yet seen in this case -- and that's saying something.
In March 1983, a very dedicated and brave nuclear engineer named Rick Parks came forward as a whistleblower. Parks was TMI-2 Senior Startup Engineer and had just been suspended by Bechtel, his employer. Parks showed us that Bechtel and TMI's owner, GPU, were deliberately circumventing safety procedures, which could have had catastrophic consequences. For months Bechtel had harassed him and other workers for reporting these violations internally. Five days later, Laurence King -- Park's former boss -- publicly supported Park's charges, and in April, another plant engineer backed them up. All three, as well as King's secretary Joyce Wenger, were horribly mistreated. The Department of Labor agreed and in 1987, Parks sued Bechtel. The company settled. Additional details about what happened to Rick Parks and the others are truly disturbing and you can read all about it.
It was bad enough that TMI-2 was run into the ground by a Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensee. That the company then outsourced its incredibly dangerous clean-up operations to Bechtel -- a cost-cutting, profiteering private company which violated safety procedures and then harassed its own workers -- should have stopped TMI-1 from ever operating again. Of course it didn't. TMI-1 restarted two years later. But if there were any question that Bechtel should not be given responsibility to manage an ultra-hazardous nuclear site, the TMI-2 experience should have removed all doubt.
Instead, as author Sally Denton put it in a recent email to me (Denton is writing a book about Bechtel):
They [i.e., Bechtel] currently have their hands in virtually every nuclear weapons plant/facility in the country -- most of which have riddled with safety violations. Including Hanford, Washington, Yucca Mountain, Y-12 and Pantex, Oak Ridge. And Bechtel packed the drums that leaked from Los Alamos/WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] two years ago.
Indeed, in 2008, the U.S Department of Energy outsourced management of two prestigious nuclear weapons research labs - Los Alamos in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California -- to Bechtel. The company was given a contract to co-manage the labs with The Regents of the University of California in a "single private partnership." What happened next in the Lawrence Livermore saga is chilling (as described in an op-ed by Roger W. Logan, legislative director at the Council of Engineers and Scientists Organizations, and Jeff Colvin, legislative director of the Communications Workers of America local that represents technical and professional employees at the University of California):
Right off the bat, the combined management fees -- footed by the taxpayer -- rose by at least $240 million over six years as Lawrence Livermore National Security [LLNS] notified 430 employees -- most of them, long-tenured professionals over age 40 -- that their services would no longer be needed. The employees were given one hour to pack up their belongings while being watched, had their badges confiscated, then were "perp-walked" out the gate like common criminals. The layoffs of career scientists and researchers drained the lab of experience and know-how -- certainly not a move that enhances national security and readiness.
More than one-third of the workers sued. In the first case, brought on behalf of five longtime workers, the jury ruled that the workers were wrongly terminated and awarded them reimbursement of their lost wages for breach of contract. In light of this verdict, LLNS (Bechtel and The Regents) should do what is right and settle with the rest of the wrongfully fired workers. But of course, they haven't -- at least not yet, fighting these workers in court for six years now. The second case has now moved to mediation, with the trial postponed until after October 1.
It's not too late for LLNS (Bechtel and The Regents) to do the right thing by these dedicated workers. But whether or not they do, one thing's for sure. As Logan and Colvin put it, "If ever there were a poster boy for privatization gone bad, this is it."