Last fall the Lake Ontario Log editor attended a meeting in Oswego and heard a chilling tale of modern times. Carol Patrickson, a petite middle aged one time English teacher and wife of an engineer who formerly worked at Fitzpatrick nuclear plant spoke of her husband’s firing. She told a mesmerizing tale of the tough times faced by a whistle blower.
Carl, the engineer, had noted as far back as 1991 that an engineering design feature at the nuclear plant posed a direct potential threat to the emergency cooling system for the reactor core. He repeatedly wrote up his DER’s (* deviation event reports) and CR’s (condition reports) and sent them to the plant management, the New York Power Authority that then owned the plant, and finally in 1997 to the federal regulators at the NRC. The NRC however, simply kicked his worries back to the management.
The problem he identified concerned the close physical proximity of two separate plumbing systems the fire pumps and the emergency core cooling system pumps. Both were (and are) situated in the same pump house building though in separate areas. If a fire were to occur in the pump house a device called a fire damper, a sort of automatic fire door, would close off and separate these two areas to contain the fire. But the closed door would also prevent the escape of heat from operating pumps. That heat would build up if the pumps were being used at the time and within four to ten minutes would cause them to fail.
Now normally the emergency core cooling pumps aren’t operating. They’re for emergency use right? But, thought Carl, especially after the terrorist attacks in New York City, what if there were such an attack and several different points of the plant were hit nearly simultaneously. The notion that having neither fire nor emergency cooling pumps available in that situation bothered him a lot. It bothers me a lot too. Four to ten minutes away from another Chernoble on the lake.
He pointed out the vulnerability of the unreinforced pump house to attack. And he kept bugging people about it. And a few months later he was called in for “random” drug tests in three successive months. After testing negative each time he was suspended for 31 days and sent off for a psychiatric evaluation. Then with no explanation he was terminated. His wife said they marched him out of his office in a highly visible little procession Mr. Patrickson’s feelings about plant safety and his squabble with the management over the pump house were no secret among plant workers. In fact he’d filed a complaint formally as a “whistle blower” seeking protection as such. By marching him out past all the cubicles his wife explained management was making sure everyone there saw what happens to employees who make too much noise about safety. To put it mildly it sends a “chilling effect”.
Mr. Patrickson has a legitimate concern especially for plants located a short boat ride away from a foreign country and an essentially undefended national border. The plant I walked around in some years back has its fire pumps in close proximity with its other plumbing and it seems pretty likely most other nukes on the Great Lakes do too. So this is a “generic” issue not limited to one plant and a well aimed stinger missile sent from a boat a couple miles offshore could do a lot of damage to an unfortified pump house.
Today Mr. Patrickson is working at a low skill job making about a third of his former salary. His family is alone, isolated broke and embittered after nearly nine months. He is fighting his termination and his legal bills are now over 40,000 dollars. A tiny group of Oswego based nuclear activists are trying to publicize his case and raise money to help his legal fees.
The skilled workers like Carl Patrickson inside those plants are our last best defense against another Chernoble. If they receive the message that safety conscious whistle blowers will be marginalized, isolated and then removed we’re all in a lot of trouble. The secretive militaristic model of shut up and follow orders in civilian nuclear plants is also worrisome for the military’s record of safety with nuclear power has not been real good.
Mr. Patrickson is a hero. We should all be grateful to him for his efforts on the behalf of innocent and unaware neighbors living within fifty miles of a nuclear plant.
If you want to help out in this on going appeal to the NRC and others about the problem Carl Patrickson started trying to fix years ago and other nuclear safety issues, join the Lake Ontario Log and others who have done so, by sending contributions to CNY-CAN attn Tim Judson 140 Basset Street Syracuse NY 13210
Postscript March 16 2005 from CNY-CAN (Central New York Citizens Action Network)
In a momentous decision, nuclear whistleblower Carl Patrickson and his wife Carolyn WON THEIR LAWSUIT against Entergy on March 3rd! The judge's ruling found that Entergy did in fact retaliate against Patrickson for reporting a nuclear safety problem to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The judge's ruling notes significantly that Entergy used its "Performance Improvement Program" as a pretext for firing him.
This finding, along with the fact that multiple levels of Entergy management were involved in the retaliation against Carl, raises the specter that workers are regularly intimidated from reporting safety problems. It also puts the lie to Entergy's reassurances that the corporation promotes a strong culture of safety at its plants.
The Patricksons would like CAN to thank all of the supporters and community members who stood behind them through this difficult and trying experience.
The problem doesn't stop with Carl's vindication -- Entergy has to fix the safety problem he blew the whistle on and stop intimidating the workers whose job it is to protect us. It's up to us -- the Patricksons' neighbors, supporters, and friends -- to make sure that happens.
Tim Judson CNY Citizens Action Network
CNY-Citizens Awareness Network