By Julie Miller, New York Times For three years, Arnold Gundersen was awakened by harassing phone calls in the middle of the night. He became so concerned about his family's safety that he bought a large dog for protection. The problem? He was a whistle-blower, one of those who take on the dismally unpopular role of exposing what they find to be unsafe or unlawful practices in the workplace, especially the nuclear workplace.
"It feels like you're in a fort surrounded by Indians, and you send for help," Mr. Gundersen said. "You hear the hoofbeats of the cavalry in the distance as it finally comes toward you. But they start shooting at you."
Mr. Gundersen, who lives in Warren, told of the day in 1990 when he discovered radioactive material in an accounting safe at Nuclear Energy Services in Danbury, the consulting firm where he held a $120,000-a-year job as senior vice president. Three weeks after he notified the company president of what he believed to be radiation safety violations, Mr. Gundersen said, he was fired.
He is fighting a $1.5 million lawsuit filed against him by his former employer for continuing to discuss the alleged safety violations publicly after agreeing to an out-of-court settlement. Mr. Gundersen said he believes he was blacklisted, citing an April 22, 1991, letter concerning him that the company sent to 78 people. He also says he was harassed and fired for doing what he thought was right.
Mr. Gundersen's case, according to a number of whistle-blowers and others interviewed, is not uncommon, especially in the nuclear industry. Even though nuclear workers are encouraged to report potential safety hazards, those who decide to do so say that they risk demotion and dismissal. Instead of correcting the problems, whistle-blowers and their supporters say, industry management and government forces attack them as the cause of the problem.
Driven out of their jobs and shunned by neighbors and co-workers, whistle-blowers turn to each other for support. Several in Connecticut have formed an informal network with those in other states.
"There's no support," Mr. Gundersen said. "It's just us, talking on the phone late at night. Just our ragtag group." Mr. Gundersen, who holds a master's degree in nuclear engineering, said blacklisting in the industry made it impossible for him to find another job in his field. He worked as a dump truck driver before taking a $20,000-a-year job as a teacher at the Forman School in Litchfield. He and his wife, Margaret, have exhausted their savings, and their house is in foreclosure. The Gundersens and their two children are looking for a place to live.
Michael L. Cioffi, vice president and assistant general counsel of American Premier Underwriters Inc., the former owner of Nuclear Energy Services, said Mr. Gundersen was laid off because of a reduction in staff. The company was sold in 1993.
Although whistle-blowers are protected under Federal and state laws, a number said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which monitors the nuclear industry, fails to keep whistle-blowers' names confidential. Their claims are supported by results of an investigation begun in 1992 by the commission's Office of the Inspector General, which found the commission fails to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation and fails to resolve their complaints quickly.
Sixteen whistle-blowers interviewed during the investigation described experiences ranging from physical threats and attacks to psychological intimidation on and off the job, according to a report on the investigation published in 1993.
One whistle-blower told of a co-worker pointing to a charred mannequin used in firefighting exercises and saying the whistle-blower could end up in a similar state if his behavior did not change. The offender was disciplined, but the whistle-blower developed post traumatic stress disorder, a neurosis following an abnormally stressful experience, such as military combat or assault.
The report also detailed, although the investigation did not independently verify, other whistle-blowers' stories, including being forced off the road by an unfamiliar car while driving home from work, unidentified people shooting at a whistle-blower's home from a vehicle, poisoning of family pets and harassing phone calls late at night.
A total of 609 complaints of retaliation against whistle-blowers filed with the nuclear commission and the United States Department of Labor resulted in only 44 investigations and just 7 enforcement actions during four and a half years. A team established in 1993 to review the nuclear commission's whistle-blower protection program made 47 recommendations to improve the environment for workers who raise safety concerns. Some of those proposals have been carried out, while others have yet to be completed, Beth Hayden, deputy director of the commission's Office of Public Affairs, said.
After he lost his job, Mr. Gundersen said he had nightmares, his blood pressure went up and he suffered from impotence. He was so depressed that he came close to committing suicide, he said. "It was a question of whether I would drive my car into a tree or blow my brains out," he said. "I saw myself as a provider. I figured that if I couldn't feed my family, at least the insurance money would support them, so I decided to drive the car into a tree, because it would appear to be an accident."
But, he said, "Ultimately, I decided I would rather fight than run."
The authors of the book, "The Whistleblowers," Myron Peretz Glazer and Penina Migdal Glazer, surveyed 64 whistle-blowers and followed many from the early stages of their resistance through the final outcome.
The Glazers described the group generally as being made up of conservative people devoted to their work and their organizations who built their careers -- whether as professionals, managers or workers -- by conforming to bureaucratic life. Most had been successful until they were asked to violate their own standards of appropriate behavior in the workplace. Invariably, they believed they were defending the true mission of their organization by resisting unsafe or unlawful practices.
Donald Del Core Sr., a whistle-blower who lives in Uncasville, spends much of his time offering advice to others who say they have been punished for blowing the whistle. Mr. Del Core said he receives about 20 to 25 calls a year. "I advise them on the different agencies involved in their problem and where they may seek some relief. In all cases, I recommend that they contact a lawyer," he said. "And I provide confidentiality."
Mr. Del Core said he was working as an instrument and controls technician at the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford when he was fired in 1991 for whistle-blowing. He filed harassment, intimidation and discrimination complaints against Northeast Utilities, owner and operator of the plant, and took the company to court after his dismissal. Finally, Mr. Del Core said, his financial situation drove him to settle out of court.
"I wanted to fight. But I had a second mortgage and was collecting unemployment," he explained. "It was as if I was giving the store away. Everything I believed in and felt strongly about I had to throw out the window. It was either financial ruin or take a settlement agreement and try to put my life back together."
After investigating Mr. Del Core's charges against Northeast Utilities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that, although some discrimination and intimidation may have occurred, Mr. Del Core was fired not for whistle-blowing but rather for disruptive behavior. The manager of nuclear information at Northeast Utilities, Anthony J. Castagno, also denied Mr. Del Core was fired for whistle-blowing, saying the reason for his dismissal was a breakdown in working relationships. "Sometimes it is in the best interest of everyone to settle," Mr. Castagno said, "rather than continuing to fight this in court or in the media."
Still fighting for vindication, Mr. Del Core wrote a letter last March to United States Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, who has acted as an advocate for whistle-blowers, asking that the commission's investigation be reopened. He said he still has not received a reply.
Shortsightedness and concerns about the cost of having to shut down a nuclear plant prevent government and the nuclear industry from listening to whistle-blowers, said James Riccio, a lawyer with Public Citizen, a consumer advocate organization in Washington. "The nuclear power industry is fighting for its life," Mr. Riccio said. Wall Street analysts predict that as many as 25 reactors will be shut down by the year 2000 because they cannot compete with gas-fired turbines, he added.
We the People, a nationwide whistle-blower organization based in Rowley, Mass., has become a strong link in the whistle-blowers' network. Formed by Stephen B. Comley in 1986, the group seeks to protect whistle-blowers' identities, research their concerns, provide legal defense and offer moral support. "The biggest problem is getting someone in Washington to listen," Mr. Comley said.
Mr. Comley became a whistle-blower in the mid-1980's when he questioned safety practices at the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire. When We the People began making safety allegations public, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission demanded in Federal court to know the source of those allegations. Mr. Comley refused to reveal his sources and was found in contempt of court, resulting in a fine of $1,000 a day and narrowly missing going to jail. The fine has grown to more than $400,000, Mr. Comley said, the Internal Revenue Service has attached his personal tax refunds and a Federal attorney has threatened to attach his property. Would he take such risks again to make nuclear plants safer? "I don't know how I couldn't do it again," Mr. Comley replied.