Engineer’s criticisms off base
A recent feature article by Doug Mattson about local resident Rick Parks, a famous whistleblower, tells the story of how Rick took on one of America’s great corporations. While it took grit to stick to his convictions, there is another side to this story. Just because Rick attained notoriety does not mean that he was right in opposing the engineering and management judgments of Bechtel at the time.
I am a retired engineer with 37 years of experience in the structural integrity of mechanical components, who worked for the Electric Power Research Institute and the General Electric Co. I am familiar with some of the lessons learned and research at Three Mile Island. It is often not easy to determine what level of risk is acceptable, and engineers are frequently challenged with this problem.
Rick claims that because Bechtel decided to forgo some tests on the lifting crane, the lives of workers would be unduly risked. I find that hard to believe. The prudence of a test depends on whether the information gained from the test is more valuable than the cost of performing the test. The cranes designed for lifting reactor vessel heads in nuclear power plants have huge factors of safety.
In addition, the failure of the crane to lift the head would not be expected to risk workers’ lives. Such a failure would undoubtedly create a hurdle to clean up, but I would trust the assessment of senior management at Bechtel over that of an idealistic but misguided engineer. I do not use the term “misguided” lightly, but I am compelled to when Rick makes the claim that profit-making corporations should not be trusted to endeavors such as nuclear power and that only the U.S. government should take on such jobs.
The safety record of the American commercial nuclear power industry has been outstanding in the annals of industrial history. That Rick gave Bechtel a lot of trouble at the Three Mile Island cleanup as a whistleblower does not mean he made a good engineering decision.
Sam W. Tagart Jr.
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