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Blowing the whistle Complaint to NRC brings nomad's life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Another whistle-blower at Peach Bottom, welder W. Allan Young says that Philadelphia Electric seemed intent on getting rid of anyone who complained to the NRC.

He complained about high radiation exposure to welders who were patching cracked cooling pipes in 1983, and was fired by the contractor after the NRC got involved.

The agency found that his concern was warranted, although exposures were within legal limits.

Mr. Young, who works regularly as a welder at other power plants, said he believed that his complaint helped to focus NRC attention on safety defects at Peach Bottom.

"It was one more stone in their boat," he said.

"My complaint, I think, helped to encourage others like the GE [General Electric] engineers to blow the whistle about operators sleeping on the job."

Mr. Young settled his wrongful firing case with the contractor, with a promise of no retaliation. But he claims he was denied security clearance at the plant on six subsequent jobs by various contractors, because of Philadelphia Electric's objections.

He is suing the utility and several contractors in cases now

pending before the secretary of labor. "I've spent about $100,000 on lawyers fighting this thing," he said, "but if it happened again, I'd blow the whistle again."

Whistle-blowers are, perhaps by definition, "difficult" people, a different breed from their co-workers: immune to peer pressure, naive about obvious threats, directed by an internal moral gyroscope, unconcerned with the costs of their actions, driven by an unremitting sense of right.

"They're hard people to deal with. They're committed to a moral absolute -- but they're not crazy," says Donald Soeken, a Laurel psychotherapist who has worked with more than 100 whistle-blowers and set up a foundation to aid them.

Rather than a malcontent or political radical, the typical whistle-blower is conservative in his work ethic and moral foundation, said Dr. Soeken, who conducted an extensive survey of them in 1987. "They believe in loyalty to their organization and to the rules. Many of them have solid religious beliefs."

His survey of nearly 100 "ethical resisters" in 1987 found the average profile was a 47-year-old, well-educated white man with at least seven years on the job.

"The whistle-blower is not a child of the cynical '60s; they have a strong trust in their organization," said Louis Clark, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based whistle-blower litigation and support group.

They are not likely to leak information, Mr. Clark said, but to press their concerns through the system until the system turns on them. "They are generally naive about the consequences, surprised by the severe retaliation and shaken to their foundation by the experience."

Stephen M. Kohn, who runs the non-profit National Whistleblower Center in Washington, says he finds many of them are highly patriotic, viewing their stands as an expression of patriotism.

"They come from every job level you can imagine, but they share an exceptional courage we could all admire," he said.

Not surprisingly, top government supervisors don't take such a positive view. A survey this year of the federal Senior Executive Service found more than half considered whistle-blowers to be disgruntled employees with a history of doing things differently. And a third of the executives felt the whistle-blower solves few, if any, problems.

The difficulty is that many organizations automatically attack the character of the whistle-blower, rather than examine the validity of his information or claims, says Dr. Soeken. A Public Health Service employee, he became a whistle-blower himself years ago, when he told Congress how government managers were routinely requiring psychiatric examinations of unwanted employees so they could be fired as unfit.

Do whistle-blowers ultimately win or lose?

Dr. Soeken estimates that two-thirds of them fail to force a correction of the problem they exposed within a few years.

A survey of 161 whistle-blowers by South Carolina college professors found that 62 percent had lost their jobs and another 11 percent had their responsibilities or pay reduced. Another 18 percent reported supervisor harassment or transfer to another job.

"Whistle-blowing is irrational," said Philip H. Jos, a political scientist at the College of Charleston who co-wrote the 1989 study. "It may often be principled and admirable, but the consequences for the whistle-blower can be devastating and the personal rewards, although not insubstantial, are uncertain."

The majority of whistle-blowers in the survey claimed that their efforts produced an external investigation of their organizations and that changes had been made. And 87 percent said that they would not hesitate to do it again under the same circumstances, despite certain retaliation by employers.

Dr. Soeken's survey found that nearly a quarter of the whistle-blowers had lost their homes or declared bankruptcy, 10 percent contemplated suicide and 15 percent blamed their failed marriages on the stresses of whistle-blowing.

The price of fighting retaliation is also steep. Mr. Kohn estimates that the whistle-blower in the private sector may be out of work as long as four years and spend $1,000 to $50,000 pursuing a legal remedy. And many cases are settled in compromise, which may not provide the hoped-for vindication, he noted.

On the other hand, the employer may lose through tougher scrutiny and inspections by government regulatory agencies, even though it prevails against the whistle-blower's lawsuit, Mr. Kohn added.

At Peach Bottom, and throughout the Philadelphia Electric Co. today, the trauma of the NRC shutdown prompted by outside whistle-blowers has forged a new, more open corporate culture.

Work teams that encourage new ideas and questions, extensive management training for foremen, reduced layers of management -- these are among the changes wrought at the utility, said Dickinson M. Smith, the company's senior nuclear officer.

"People are listening to each other more and responding," he said, and complaints made to the NRC have apparently dropped off considerably. "We don't have the management 'filters' against [employee] concerns that we used to have."

Help for whistle-blowers

The Government Accountability Project (202) 347-0460 publishes a layman's guide for whistle-blowers called "Courage Without Martyrdom," for which it asks a $10 donation.

The Integrity Assistance Fund offers assistance from his office at (301) 953-7358.

The Whistle-blower Center can help find lawyers and other help at (202) 667-7515.

The Project on Military Procurement (202) 543-0883 assists in Defense Department fraud cases.

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