National News: Whistleblowing – Then & Now

Written By Maggie Gundersen

Photo Credit to EPP Group

"If it was not thanks to whistleblowers, we would have never known of scandals such as Panama Papers and of corruption taking place as the highest levels. Whistleblowers take personal risks to report breaches of law, irregularities and corruption. This is why I have emphasised the need to defend citizens reporting breaches of law to safeguard public interest and proper functioning of democracy. Whistleblowers deserve legal, economic, social and psychological protection."

– Zammit Dimech, EPP Group

Here at Fairewinds, there are many reasons why we choose our Demystifying Nuclear Power Blog posts, and those reasons range from breaking news to reflective thoughts to cutting edge scientific findings or studies. Today, however, we are sharing the first blog post in a series that we will continue for several months as we share our personal perspective and story about being nuclear whistleblowers. Don’t worry, we will still continue to share breaking energy news on Fairewinds News FeedTwitter (@Fairewinds), and Facebook, and via our ongoing scientific analysis and research.

The impetus for this new Demystifying Nuclear Power Blog was spearheaded by an email we received from Dr. Robert Herendeen, one of Fairewinds Energy Education’s science advisors. Last week, as news spread about a federal whistleblower coming forward and testifying about government wrongdoing, Dr. Herendeen sent us an email with a link to the October 1, 2019 National Public Radio podcast The Takeaway

Even though NPR is one of my ‘go-to’ daily news sources, I had never heard of The Takeaway Podcast before Dr. Herendeen forwarded the link to us. Now that I have listened, I can tell you it is a well-researched people-centered podcast. Produced by WYNC Studios, The Takeaway describes itself as “A fresh alternative in daily news featuring critical conversations, live reports from the field, and listener participation. The Takeaway provides a breadth and depth of world, national, and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.” And, it is now on my ‘go-to’ list.

The Takeaway Podcast is what it claims to be, and for me, as a lifelong journalist, it reflects what I believe journalism should be.

Dr. Robert Herendeen wrote: “The whistleblower podcast available here (for 1 Oct 2019) brings it home to me in ways that I had stuffed [away, emotionally] even knowing you all these years. Even today, the conclusion is that essentially all whistleblowers lose their careers.” [clarification added]

In the October 1 podcast, entitled Impeachment Saga Puts New Spotlight on Federal Whistleblower ComplaintsThe Takeaway tackles everything from the latest whistleblower news to the heart-rendering stories of other whistleblowers around the United States, who have been harassed and punished for doing their jobs and protecting peoples’ lives! 

We first became whistleblowers in 1990. After reading Dr. Herendeen’s comments, listening to The Takeaway, and speaking with Fairewinds crew and colleagues, we see that talking about our roles as nuclear whistleblowers is long past-due.

Truth-telling as whistleblowers changed our lives forever, and it continues to influence how we live and what we do on a daily basis as we continue to speak truth to power.

Look at the summary from The Takeaway’s page, or listen for yourself right here,

“the center of this saga is a whistleblower report that the Trump Administration allegedly attempted to suppress.

On Monday, the president told reporters his administrationwas "trying to find out about a whistleblower." Last week, Trump implicitly threatened the whistleblower, in leaked audio published by The L.A. Times, calling them a "spy." "The spies and treason — we used to handle it a little differently than we do now," Trump said.

This public display by the President and others has brought about questions of the treatment of whistleblowers in both the public and private sectors. In many cases, whistleblowers face retaliation for speaking up about potential misconduct. [This is what happened to Arnie and me consistently – publicly and in private beginning in 1990.]

Tom Mueller, journalist and author of the forthcoming book, Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, joins The Takeaway to discuss the risks whistleblowers face when speaking out about state and corporate wrongdoings. But sometimes speaking up and blowing the whistle can save lives — and may be worth the risks. [Emphasis Added]

For two other Takeaway guests, moral and ethical dilemmas are not just abstract concepts. These are daily battles they have been going through since they first blew the whistle in their respective departments.

Robert MacLean is a twice-fired TSA Federal Air Marshal, who blew the whistle on practices by the Department of Homeland Security back in 2003. MacLean found out the DHS would be cutting Federal Air Marshal personnel on long-distance flights that were at risk of terrorist attacks.

Brandon Coleman is a former counselor with the Department of Veterans Affairs, who blew the whistle in 2015 about the lack of treatment for suicidal veterans within the VA. Coleman documented the VA's neglect of suicidal veterans in Phoenix, who were often not being given necessary treatment. As a veteran himself, Coleman also found out VA staff were inappropriately accessing his own records.”

Arnie and Maggie Gundersen celebrating Arnie’s 70th Birthday at Folly Beach ‘Save the Lighthouse’ Oyster Fest.

Arnie and I first met when we both worked for the nuclear power industry. Arnie was the lead nuclear engineer on a project, and I was the public information representative for that upstate New York project. We were married in January 1979 in Owego, New York and just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary in January 2019 in our new home in Charleston, SC.

We never intended to become whistleblowers; I don’t know any whistleblower who intends to do that. Whistleblowing is not a career path. In 1990, Arnie uncovered significant breaches in nuclear safety regulations at the corporation where he was employed as a senior vice-president, and I identified and wrote to legislators and senators about the following coverup by federal regulators within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

At the request of Senator John Glenn and the Government Oversight Committee, Arnie testified in 1993 Congressional Hearings to the fact that the United States (US) NRC had knowingly and deliberately tried to discredit real safety allegations and the fraud accompanying them that Arnie first brought to the NRC’s attention 1990. Yet, even now, almost 30-years later, the NRC regularly attempts to discredit Fairewinds’ atomic power risk and safety analysis work and continues to troll and malign our work via the Fairewinds Energy Education nonprofit website as well as trolling Arnie and I personally and individually in other venues.

Now fast-forward 25-years from John Glenn’s Congressional hearings in 1993 to Clarkson University in upstate New York in 2013, where Arnie and I were invited to give a presentation to the Business Ethics classes concerning the role of whistleblowers in society. Six-years later, we are still very thankful for Clarkson’s invitation and hospitality. Writing our presentation and then giving it together at Clarkson, is the first time we had really spoken publicly about how whistleblowing felt to us and why having whistleblowers is so important to public health and to democracy. Moreover, Clarkson’s interest and hospitality turned out to create a clarifying experience for us and began our healing in a new way.

Arnie and Maggie discuss being whistleblowers before Clarkson University students in 2013.

The presentation, Speaking Truth to Power that was filmed at Clarkson University, is interlaced with our own personal experiences as well of those of other whistleblowers from around the world. Most importantly for this 2019 discussion, Fairewinds’ Clarkson Speaking Truth to Power presentation is truly applicable to The Takeaway Podcast with its focus on the critical role of whistleblowers in uncovering government and corporate wrongdoing.

Speaking Truth to Power clearly elucidates the daunting challenges we whistleblowers face in our efforts to simply do our jobs to protect the people and communities that otherwise will be harmed all around the world.

Once again, we have been opened up to a whirlwind of emotions from our personal whistleblower past and the memories of the traumas that forever changed our lives. Theses traumas have been so poignantly highlighted in interviews with other whistleblowers in The Takeaway: Impeachment Saga Puts New Spotlight on Federal Whistleblower Complaints.

As nuclear whistleblowers who began this journey in 1990, we can honestly tell you that no one choses this path willingly, and no one imagines the personal and professional toll whistleblowing takes on the individuals involved as well as their families, friends, and close colleagues.

I want to clarify that while Arnie and I have spoken vaguely about our whistleblowers roles on and off for almost 30-years, we also worked hard to stay out of the whistleblower limelight even when so many of our colleagues and Fairewinds’ followers wanted to hear more from us about our whistleblowing past. Our reluctance to speak has been for two reasons: first, it was an effort to focus our skills on our regulatory analyses, scientific research, and educational efforts. Second, no matter what we have proven all over the world via research, journal publications, sworn testimony, university presentations, media interviews, or via the Fairewinds Energy Education nonprofit that I founded in 2008, the financially-motivated atomic industry and its supposed federal regulators do their best to discredit us. The industry and its regulators have ridiculed, dismissed, or tried to coverup our scientific and peer-reviewed work as they continue to troll us on social media or ridicule and confront us when we are invited public speakers about atomic reactors and radioactive exposures.

Additionally, during the ensuing 29+ years since we first became nuclear whistleblowers, I have met whistleblowers in almost every arena beginning with engineering and science and moving on to corporate, political, or government coverups then to sexual assault and the #MeToo movements, the pervasive racism at every level of society and government, and the recently intensified and vicious discrimination of people of different ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, and gender identities.

Personally I am currently working with four-whistleblowers in entirely unique areas of work who are speaking truth to power. Some are colleagues with whom we work on scientific research. Others are people to whom I give personal emotional support as they walk their talk, speak truth to power, and try to build new lives. Finally, I also help people reframe issues and their stories so they can stand tall and speak their truths, even when their own families and friends do not want to know or hear the truths in their lives. This is something that happened to us and to almost every whistleblower we have ever met.

After reading Dr. Herendeen’s note, I realized that our hesitance to talk openly about our whistleblowing traumas left people uninformed about the necessity of whistleblowers to protect democracy and the health and safety of people all over the world.

When we first decided I would write this blog, I asked Fairewinds’ administrator and researcher Patrick Moore what he thought and felt. Patrick’s opinion mattered to me because he interned and worked for Fairewinds Energy Education during the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns in Japan when we all lived in Burlington, Vermont. Early on, Patrick helped Fairewinds establish its online presence with newsletters and Twitter following the Fukushima atomic power disaster. Interestingly, Patrick’s time with Fairewinds helped him develop his love for nonprofit work, and in 2018, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with his Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science and Public Service. Patrick currently works remotely for Fairewinds Energy Education as he pursues his Master of Public Administration Degree at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.

In answer to my question, Patrick wrote:

“As a student of public service, we discuss both the issue of ethics and whistleblowing quite extensively. With that being said, I will admit that working for two whistleblowers is actually quite rewarding in and of itself. I enjoy being able to learn from them and experience their knowledge and perspectives on a variety of topics. The work that they have done and still continue to do is truly irreplaceable.

To put one’s self in such a vulnerable position as a whistleblower, despite the stigma and repercussions associated with doing so, is something I believe to be welcomed, encouraged, and commended, especially when it comes to protecting the interest of the public and future generations.

I would certainly say that, in a way, they (and all whistleblowers, for that matter) seek a world where there is no need for whistleblowing at all, and that makes the work that I get to do much more worthwhile and meaningful.”

I have to admit that what Patrick wrote for this post really touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Patrick worked with me when I began to expand Fairewinds Energy Education’s website, university presentations, and ongoing scientific research. It is wonderful to have him back with us again.

Sherron Watkins is sworn in on Capitol Hill Thursday, Feb. 14, 2002. Credit: RON EDMONDS

This week I also received an email from Sherron Watkins, best known as the Enron Whistleblower. Ms. Watkins’ impassioned description of what whistleblowing means for almost all whistleblowers really rings true for me:

“Although I am technically an internal whistleblower, I wanted to go outside the company to warn others, but lacked a clear path to make that happen. Thanks to the Dodd-Frank law passed in 2010, that path is now clear… It took until 2011 to create what is now an extremely successful whistleblower program at the SEC. …However, the SEC has now proposed two amendments that would gut its whistleblower program.  One puts up reporting mechanism hurdles, and the other places an arbitrary limit on the rewards available to whistleblower. These amendments would block many from reporting fraud and remove incentives to do so. Employees blow the whistle to stop their organizations from continuing to do harm, and they should be able and encouraged to do so.

It is a lonely road to become a whistleblower. Enron tried to fire me, I lost longtime friends, I’ve been ostracized and will never work in my chosen field again.  But I remain the only whistleblower with a good story – Enron imploded too fast to make their plans for me come to fruition. I have been blessed. Not so for countless others I meet who blew the whistle at their organization and their lives have been ruined. …It is critical those individuals have access to the protections they deserve.” [Emphasis Added]

There is so much more to our story – our past story as whistleblowers, our present story with our scientific legacy work, and I imagine as our future story evolves, all of which developed from the whistleblower activities we were forced to begin in 1990.

This Demystifying Nuclear Power post – National News: Whistleblowing Then and Now is the beginning of what we believe will lend strong credence to the pressures testing our democracy, our environment, and our sisters and brothers around the world as we all fight for equality, democratic rights, personal health and welfare, and most importantly the health of our planet.

This world is our planet. It belongs to all of us, not just to wealthy mega-corporations, master moneymakers, or the less than 1% who perceive that the wealth and health of the planet belongs only to them.

“We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself” – 16-year-old environmental humanist Greta Thunberg