Why you should care

Because nuclear power is still pretty powerful.

On March 16, 1979, The China Syndrome was released in theaters around the country. It told the story of a television reporter who discovers possible safety violations at a fictional nuclear generating station outside Los Angeles. Events spin out of control, and the film ends on an ominous note. The China Syndrome got scathing criticism from nuclear power advocates.

On March 28, 1979, the most significant commercial nuclear accident in the history of the United States occurred, resulting in a partial meltdown in Three Mile Island’s Reactor 2. The governor of Pennsylvania issued a media report that assured the public that the situation was under control. Within hours, there were conflicting reports about levels of exposure to radioactivity. Local schools were closed and a voluntary evacuation was recommended for a five-mile radius around the reactor. Within hours, that radius was extended to 20 miles.

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station

Source Shutterstock

Meanwhile, in the desert about 50 miles outside Phoenix, the largest nuclear generating facility in the United States was under construction. Nuclear reactors use water in order to regulate the temperature of the reactor core, and to safely shut down in the case of an emergency. The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station was the only nuclear power plant in the world that was not located near a large body of water, and used treated wastewater from nearby towns and cities to meet its water requirements.

One day in 1980, during my senior year of high school, my father called a family meeting. He told us he had a difficult decision to make. He was convinced that practices he witnessed and participated in while working as a journeyman wireman at Palo Verde were not only substandard and in violation of specifications, but potentially catastrophic. (According to a February article in The Arizona Republic, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent two inspectors to Palo Verde to investigate the failure of emergency equipment during a December 2016 test.)

One day in 1980, during my senior year of high school, my father called a family meeting. He told us he had a difficult decision to make.

The emergency shutdown systems might fail, he thought, not because of some arcane design error, but because of simple greed, corruption and malfeasance. He quit his job at Palo Verde, saying he didn’t think it was right to snitch on his employers while he was collecting a check, and he also felt his life was in danger. He became aware of a local activist group that opposed the Palo Verde project, and he contacted them. He then reported the activities he’d witnessed and participated in to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That’s when the trouble really started.

Dad had asked for confidentiality when he went to the NRC, and he believed they had granted it to him. He also became a witness in a legal action against Arizona Public Service (APS), the utility company that was the principal owner and operator of Palo Verde, and Bechtel, the primary contractor at Palo Verde and the preeminent construction contractor in the world. Later, Dad’s union became part of the convoluted legal drama. After quitting at Palo Verde, he discovered that he was blackballed by his union, placed on an allegedly secret list of “unhireables.” Job referrals ceased to exist whenever he showed his face at the union hall. Coworkers and old friends encouraged him to remain silent. We got strange and ominous phone calls at our home. I answered a few of those calls. Anonymous death threats can be unsettling.

At some point during the investigation that followed, Dad was invited to an exit tour through Palo Verde to verify the specifics of his claims. Dad discovered that each item he had publicly outlined had been corrected and brought into strict compliance. Dad was no rube though. He’d suspected a cozy relationship between the NRC (the regulator), APS and Bechtel (the regulatees). Dad had an additional list of issues in his back pocket. None of those issues had been corrected.

On a hot summer day in 1981, a crew from ABC’s 20/20 investigative newsmagazine show arrived at our house to interview my father. Tom Jarriel was doing a piece on reported concerns with the quality assurance, cost overruns and safety concerns at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. After a brief chat, the 20/20 crew set up a shot and started rolling. Jarriel asked Dad to summarize what he knew about events at Palo Verde.

bob gunderson canyon

Bob Gunderson, the author’s father, in better times

Source Photo courtesy of Quincy Gunderson

Dad brought out a couple of props, building a visual metaphor using household-size electrical connectors in the place of nuclear reactor electrical cable connectors. It was crude but serviceable. Jarriel and his crew packed up, said thanks and left. Several months later, 20/20 aired a segment on cost overruns in the nuclear reactor construction business. They used about 20 seconds of Dad’s interview, including the props. There was no mention of the safety issues, the quality assurance and inspection issues, or the shenanigans with construction techniques, shortcuts and cheats.

Dad never worked in Arizona again. In 2001, he passed away at work courtesy of a massive coronary, three days after his 59th birthday.

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