Ten years ago, Arnold Gundersen of Goshen was a senior vice president with Danbury-based Nuclear Energy Services, a card-carrying member of the nuclear industry. Since then, he has become a dedicated whistleblower, taking on the industry that once supplied him in his family with a comfortable lifestyle and a bright future. Mr. Gundersen made the transition between these two worlds after he uncovered what he felt were safety violations at NES and reported the problem to management. Soon after making this report he was dismissed from his job and began a five-year effort to prove his case. He asserts he was blacklisted by the industry for discussing the alleged violations with state and federal regulators and was eventually sued by NES $1.5 million for defamation. The suit was settled out-of-court.
A report prepared by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission eventually concluded that there had been irregularities at NES, and second document, prepared by the Office of the Inspector General, noted that the NRC had violated its own regulations by improperly steering business to NES. But that vindication was small solace to the Gundersen family, who had by then lost their home.
"Without the intervention of Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Sen. John Glenn, we would have been dog meat", Mr. Gundersen said. "We would have been selling apples on the street. My bitterness is not toward my former employer, but toward the government agencies that did nothing to rectify it. I had believed in the government, but now I know that it is an organism and when you attack it, it reacts like an organism. But as a result of my case, Connecticut has toughest whistleblower protection bill in the country."
Now a physics and mathematics teacher at Marvelwood School in Kent and director of the school's summer program, Mr. Gundersen has come to grips with the ruination of his previous career. "I took a fourfold pay cut when I came to Marvelwood," he said, "but I really feel alive everyday. I don't spend a lot of time prepping for class, but I spend hours figuring out how to present the materials. Marvelwood is a school for kids who need second chances. We have them for four years, and when you see one go off to a good school-that feels wonderful."
Day by day, Mr. Gundersen, who is 50, enjoys his teaching position, but he has yet to forget the safety violations he reported while still employed in the nuclear industry, or the duplicity he says brought him to financial ruin. As a result, he still speaks out when he sees irregularities in the industry or when he sees dangerous circumstances developing.
This past spring he was one of four experts on the industry invited to the Czech Republic to testify about perceived problems with the new Temelin nuclear power plant being built in that country. The Czech Republic was then preparing to vote on whether to continue with the plant's construction. The other Western experts invited were Paul Blanch, a self-employed consultant who is the "the Henry Aaron of whistleblowers," in Mr. Gundersenís words; Jim Riccio who works with Ralph Nader, and Ed Smelof, a Pace University professor.
Temelin is being built in the southwestern corner of the country, near the Austrian border. It is a project that has been plagued by delays and cost overruns for many years, years in which alternate forms of energy generation have developed and the overall demand for power in the country has decreased.
"Last year at a call from Friends of the Earth," Mr. Gundersen recalled. Hnuti Duha, the Czech Friends of the Earth affiliate, was looking for four experts to go over and present case against nuclear generation. We were there ten days and I only got to sightsee for about six hours in all that time, but we did get into the Parliament, which is something the average visitor never gets to see. We gave four press conferences every day. It was front-page news all a time we were there. It was really funny to see myself on television in the evening and not to understand a word I was saying because they had dubbed in my voice."
Despite the language barrier, Mr. Gundersen had little doubt that is group's words were being accurately represented. "Our interpreter, a member of Hnuti Duha, was totally bilingual and did most of our translation," the American recalled. "At one point we were part about three-hour discussion of they economics of the nuclear power plants and then they used simultaneous translation." He added that simultaneous translation is so taxing, interpreted interpreters are rotated several times each hour.
Mr. Gundersen found the Czech Republic to be "a very civil country."
"When we arrived, they were having a rally to ask the ministers to debate the issue of nuclear power," he added. "Can you imagine having a demonstration to ask people to debate?" He showed a picture in his photo album of young people gathered outside the ministry offices in Prague, holding signs asking "DISKUSE" (discussion). In the Republic, young people can even choose to serve a year with Hnuti Duha rather than going into military service.
But even in that "civil" country, the visiting experts were viewed with some reservations. "When we first got there, we said we would like to tour the plant," Mr. Gundersen said. "They couldn't say no, so they gave us a tour. But we had four armed guards wherever we went. It was very intimidating."
The visiting environmentalists' concerns may have been front-page news, but they failed to forestall an affirmative, although close, vote for the continued construction of the plant. "This is a 20-year-old decision," Mr. Gundersen explained. "We proved to them that would be cheaper to stop construction now and then build smaller plants as the need developed, but they are stuck in a mindset. Because they have spent so much money on it, there is a feeling that they have to go forward. The vote for completing construction was 11 to eight and several other ministers who voted for it said they feel construction should be completed and the plant should be mothballed.”
According to the nuclear expert there are number of reasons the Czech Republic should give up construction of the plant. The first is the evolving economy of the country since it rejected communism in 1991. As trade relations with Western nations expanded and the economy improves, more homes are using appliances of Western manufacture. Those items are superior to the ones produced in the Republic and use less power. There has been a consequent drop in energy use, making the plant less necessary. "There has been a per capita increase in lifestyle as opposed to a per capita decreased electrical demand," Mr. Gundersen said.
Additionally, the Republic can now purchase power from the European Community for less than what it would cost to generate it with the new plant, and the country derives much of its energy from coal-burning generators located in Bohemia. "If they bring the new plan online, they will end up laying off 100,000 coal miners," Mr. Gundersen said, "and will have to deal with massive unemployment."
And then, even if all economic concerns are set aside, there are problems of construction delays and cost overruns. In a speech delivered just before the final vote last May, President Vaclav Havel, who strongly opposed continued construction, referred to the escalation of the cost of the project over the past decade and of the possibility of further delays and cost overruns.
"We, the visiting experts, predicted the project would come in late and cost more. A week after the vote, they announced the plant's opening would be late and it would cost more-but they didn't make that announcement before the fact," Mr. Gundersen said with a smile.
Many of the environmental groups fear that because of the ever-escalating price of the project, shortcuts will be taken that will compromise safety at the plant. "The plant is 66 percent owned by the government," Mr. Gundersen reported, "and the government is responsible for regulating its construction. There are some real pressures to let things go by. A lot of problems in the safety systems are being glossed over. One of the biggest fears people have is a bond default. The Austrians are terrified and are one of the biggest groups opposing it-although the Czechs hate the Austrians so much, I'm not sure how effective that is."
There has also been a large international involvement in the construction of the plant. Westinghouse for instance supplied parts. "There are some very entrenched interests here," Mr. Gundersen concluded. "Just a caring cost for the money are so much, the longer they stretch it out, the more expensive it becomes. But some time they will have to pay the piper."
At the same time he was making front-page news in the Czech Republic, Mr. Gundersen was again ruffling the feathers of the nuclear industry in United States. He and Paul Blanch joined Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington in March in asserting that the radiation release from Three Mile Island 20 years ago was from 4 to 15 times larger than the federal estimate.
A judge in 1996 rejected all 2,100 claims that people had been hurt by the accident, but the trio and attorneys for the plaintiffs contend that the cases should be revived and tried before a jury, rather than a judge or the NRC.
Source: The Litchfield County Times