Blowing the whistle Complaint to NRC brings nomad's life

July 07, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

For nearly six years, George A. Field has led a nomad's life traveling across the country to find temporary jobs as a health physics technician, measuring the radiation of nuclear power plants.

"I can't get a permanent job. I've been turned down by utilities a number of times," he said recently, after being laid off from a job at the federal Savannah River nuclear plant in South Carolina.

"Everybody asks for a 10-year job history, and when I put down Bartlett, well . . . "

Bartlett Nuclear Inc. fired Mr. Field in October 1985 after he complained to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that he got an overdose of radiation during an inspection at the Peach Bottom power plant, 40 miles north of Baltimore.

His wife, Dawn, was also fired from her secretarial job with another Peach Bottom contractor.

Does he harbor any regrets? "My wife and I bring it up all the time. I'd probably be at Peach Bottom today. We had a house, close to her family [in Harford County], and we were settled there. With two small kids, we can't keep moving forever.

"On the other hand, I had to raise the question about exposure levels. That was what I was hired to do. If you can't do your job to the fullest, don't do it at all."

Mr. Field belongs to the dubiously exclusive club of whistle-blowers, a fraternity of ethical resisters or boat-rockers who have paid their dues for speaking out against what they saw as inexcusable breaches of corporate conduct.

Some whistle-blowers make front-page news, and movies are made of their stories: "Serpico," "Silkwood," "Brubaker," "Marie." A rare few collect multimillion-dollar judgments against vindictive or corrupt employers.

But most of them are low-profile cases, instances where individuals take a stand of conscience and accept the enduring consequences -- firing, blacklisting, demotion and harassment.

Nuclear power plant workers blow the whistle more often than most groups, and nearly 100 of them go to court each year to fight the backlash of their employers.

Backed by a 1974 federal law, these workers are encouraged to bring unresolved safety concerns to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"If they [workers] feel they will lose their jobs if they speak to the NRC, eventually there could be potential problems at the plant we would not know about," said NRC section chief Robert Gallo, in support of Mr. Field's action.

Events at Peach Bottom proved his point. Six months after Bartlett fired Mr. Field, the NRC took the extraordinary step of shutting down the plant for serious management violations, including control room operators sleeping on the job. It remained shut down for two years until the commission allowed it to restart in 1989.

The NRC also vindicated Mr. Field. The commission found that Bartlett, a subcontractor at Peach Bottom, fired Mr. Field at the direction of the plant's operator, Philadelphia Electric Co., and fined the power company $50,000 in February 1987 for the illegal retaliation. (At the same time, the NRC concluded that Mr. Field was not exposed to excessive radiation.)

It was a classic whistle-blower episode. The employee went outside the organization to report suspected wrongdoing. The company was found at fault and fined -- but the employee lost his job.

"The NRC finding didn't help me at all," Mr. Field said disgustedly. "It didn't help me get a new job or get my old one back. And I didn't get a penny out of it."

After a discouraging attempt to pursue his case through the Department of Labor, Mr. Field sued Philadelphia Electric and Bartlett for $4 million in Pennsylvania state court. He spent more than three years fighting challenges to his right to sue, winning in state Superior Court, and is now preparing to go to trial. His attorney, Lynne Bernabei, expects it will take another year or two to reach a conclusion.

Philadelphia Electric denies that Mr. Field and his wife were fired in retaliation. The utility and Bartlett argue that he was fired because of absenteeism (an explanation rejected by the NRC and a Pennsylvania appeals court) and that Mrs. Field was let go in a staff reduction.

Federal investigators found that the company did not inform Mr. Field and three others of the radiation levels they were exposed to and that the firm had falsely told Mr. Field that his radiation meter was not working properly because of high humidity.

"The NRC had a lot of problems with Peach Bottom, and management knew it," he said. "Another incident would have been real bad for Philadelphia Electric at the plant, one more nail in the coffin they didn't want to deal with."

The NRC had fined Peach Bottom several times from 1984 to 1986 for serious mishaps involving human error.

The agency had cited a "serious management deficiency" at the plant that reflected sloppy work. The reactor was shut down 35 times in eight months during 1985-1986, costing the utility money and intensifying NRC scrutiny.

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