12/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain vs. Nuclear Safety

Last week during a rally in Iowa, John McCain mocked Barack Obama for expressing concern over the safety of nuclear energy. "It has to be safe, environment, blah, blah, blah..." he said to a cheering, partisan crowd. "I have news for Senator Obama, nuclear power is safe, we ought to do it now."

McCain's cavalier attitude toward nuclear safety, where he holds in contempt those who raise questions, is nothing new. In one of his earliest acts as a congressman, McCain tore into a nuclear whistleblower who had the temerity to stand up to the powerful energy industry.

It was 1983, McCain's first year in Congress, and the subcommittee upon which he sat, "Energy and the Environment," was holding hearings on the cleanup at Three Mile Island (TMI), site of the worst nuclear accident in US history. During a mystifying exchange with a whistleblower who'd spoken up about a potential safety problem -- one which experts warned could have resulted in the necessary evacuation of major east-coast metropolitan areas, McCain didn't ask one question about actual safety, according to a transcript of the hearing.

"His sole role was serving as a nuclear-industry hatchet-man to discredit the whistleblowers who were raising safety concerns," said a lawyer who was present during the hearings.

Against his employer's wishes, the whistleblower, Larry King, the project manager of the TMI cleanup, refused to rush a delicate and critical procedure before adequate safety tests had been conducted. Two others at the plant had concurred with King. And within days of their opposition, the corporation that runs TMI, General Public Utilities (GPU), and its contractor supervising the project, Bechtel, set about ruining their lives.

One whistleblower was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, another was harassed and had his house broken into, and a third, Larry King, was fired from his job.

The corporations' anger at the whistleblowers and subsequent retaliation, according to King, came from concerns over the flow of money to the project. As King said in his testimony during the hearing: "GPU Nuclear president...has publicly asked what motive the utility would have to take shortcuts...that could threaten public health and safety. I can suggest one possible motive," said King, "to maintain the flow of approximately $20 million in Department of Energy funds that were threatened due to scheduling delays."

The whistleblowers had identified several safety issues, but the focus of much of the hearing revolved around a powerful "polar crane" whose job was to lift the heavy reactor head so that problems within the reactor could be addressed. If it failed, and the head fell, the committee chairman, late Congressman Mo Udall, identified it as "one of the worst things that could have happened."

When King refused to sign off on the procedure in the absence of a load test for the crane, he was immediately suspended (later, he was fired), escorted to the front gate and barred from returning to the plant. GPU said they fired King because of a conflict of interest -- King owned an outside consulting company that also operated in the nuclear energy industry. The problem with GPU's claim was that King had been careful to ensure his consulting company didn't do business with GPU; and his supervisors at Bechtel had been aware of this "conflict" 18 months prior to his dismissal.

"It only became an issue when I blew the whistle," said King in a recent interview.

Under early questioning at the hearing, King made clear that he had come at the urging of the chairman of the committee to testify about safety; that he'd come on short notice, hadn't come with a lawyer and didn't think it appropriate to discuss the "conflict of interest" issue because it was under investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Nevertheless, McCain wanted to focus on nothing else.

"I see, so we can reveal openly here many of your allegations, but we cannot reveal in this hearing anything to do with the allegations of your conflict of interest...?" McCain asked rhetorically.

When King said that he'd be glad to discuss these issues but not without his lawyer present, McCain asked:

"Were you advised that you could bring a lawyer, like your friend did [McCain said in derisive reference to the other whistleblower present]?"

"I'm sorry this committee did not give you ample time to consult whether you needed a lawyer or not," McCain continued.

King responded: "We are here to discuss safety issues."

McCain replied: "I am sorry you have chosen not to address the subject of the reasons why you were fired from this company, and the reason why is because that directly affects the credibility of your testimony before this committee."

"I thought I was there to protect the public," King said recently.

But that clearly didn't seem to be McCain's intent.

"What was striking to me at the hearing was Congressman McCain's complete disregard for the consequences to the public from an alleged systematic illegality...[and] that we could have ended up having to evacuate Philadelphia, NYC and Washington DC," says Tom Devine, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, speaking in an independent capacity, who witnessed the hearing. There was no one else [on the Committee] who was so single minded and unbalanced."

Devine went on to say that at least other politicians showed respect for the concept of nuclear safety, "Congressman McCain had no interest in the point of the hearing. It was all about discrediting the whistleblowers. He was the attack dog." And while Devine, who has witnessed countless congressional hearings, says it's not unusual for politicians to play that role, "under those circumstances, it was horribly irresponsible."

"That's why it was déjà vu the way he dismissed Senator Obama's sensibility to safety issues," says Devine. "It just brought back the same attitude as 1983, almost contempt for the obstruction of getting the plant completed and online."

In the end, the position of whistleblowers was vindicated on all counts and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) fined GPU for a "serious" violation of NRC procedures in the cleanup, and "they had to start over from scratch," Devine says.

But no thanks to John McCain.

Senator McCain now says he wants to build 45 new nuclear power plants. He also says they're safe. "Ask some of our Navy veterans," he said during that rally in Iowa. "They'll tell you."

He's right. Navy veterans do know. Many retired naval officers occupy executive positions in the country's top energy corporations involved the nuclear field. They are there because of the Navy's historical experience with nuclear power as it's been used and developed for naval aircraft carriers and submarines. It's a good fit and some have argued they've brought much needed discipline to the industry -- and, in some instances, safety.

You can be pro-nuclear and concerned about safety issues and you can be pro-nuclear and insensitive to safety issues. John McCain seems to be in the latter camp. Can we be assured that he would hold his fellow Navy vets and others who produce nuclear energy to the appropriate and necessary safety standards? Given the experience of Larry King, it's a question worth asking.