Disturbing Tale From Florida Nuclear Plant
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (CN) - Florida Power & Light fired a safety officer for shutting down a dangerously leaking nuclear reactor, because it cost $6 million to repair, the man claims in court.
Mark W. Hicks sued Florida Power & Light Co. in Port St. Lucie County Court, alleging whistleblower violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, libel and fraud.
After 20 years in the "Nuclear [U.S.] Navy Program," Hicks says, he had been a safety compliance officer for two FP&L's nuclear power plants for less than a year when he discovered coolant leaking from a reactor's "code safety relief valve."
Hicks says that under the Code of Federal Regulations, the leak "mandated the immediate shutdown of the reactor."
"It was clear to Hicks that there was great potential peril, as a reactor which loses too much nuclear reactor coolant has a potential of causing core damage, which could ultimately lead to a nuclear meltdown at the power plant, putting the entire civilian population, which would be in proximity to the reactor, in danger," the complaint states.
"In fact, the same type of coolant leak that Hicks observed at the St. Lucie power plant was what caused the partial nuclear core meltdown on March 28, 1979, known as the Three Mile Island Accident, in Middletown, Pennsylvania, which was the worst nuclear accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history ...
"Due to the need to protect the public and FPL employees, Hicks immediately directed his operations shift manager to cease startup of the reactor, and to shut it down, and to begin a cool down of the reactor, so that his team could repair the leaky valve.
"At the time of the incident, Hicks was following the plant safety procedures outlined in FPL's Technical Specification § 6.8, and from his own general safety knowledge regarding the procedures required to reduce the safety concern."
Hicks adds: "Following protocol, Hicks reported to the head of the Nuclear Power Division of FPL and the Executive Vice President of FPL Manoochehr Nazar, who then shockingly and recklessly insisted that Hicks start up the reactor.
"Despite Hicks' evaluation of the situation, the obvious safety concerns, and the clear legal requirements which dictated that Hicks and FPL shut down the reactor, Nazar ordered Hicks to sign off on starting up the reactor without repairing the valves.
"Nazar took the position he did, to startup the reactor, strictly from a position of greed. The bottom line is that he was willing to risk the health, well being, and even the lives of the citizens of Florida to avoid the loss of revenue, while the reactor was being repaired.
"That was why Hicks was ordered to start up the reactor and to ignore the clear safety risk. At all times, Nazar and the other senior management of FPL were made fully aware of the safety concern, and despite this knowledge, in an effort to save money, ordered the reactor started.
"In an act of defiance, and at risk of losing his job at FPL, Hicks went against his superior's instructions, and refused to start up the reactor."
Hicks says his actions "saved the company from the potential ruin that would have followed a Florida version of the Three Mile Island accident".
He adds: "In fact, after shutting down the reactor, it was discovered that Hicks was correct in requiring that the reactor be shut down, as the valve was incorrectly installed, the piping was out of alignment placing stresses on the valve body which caused the leak. Not only on the valve in question, but two other similar valves, and piping was sprung out of place from the misalignment. The piping had to be cut and re-welded to properly install the valves. On returning the reactor to service, the valves no longer leaked and they functioned perfectly as designed. ...
"Not only because of the loss of approximately $6 million, but more to assure that no one would dare defy Nazar and to assure that the rest of the employees would yield to the demands of Nazar no matter how dangerous those demands might be, Nazar and his crony officers began to take actions to punish Hicks.
"Without warning, Hicks' supervisors started to take retaliatory actions against him. Where he should have been lauded for doing his job and protecting the public, FPL, and the environment from a potential nuclear disaster, Hicks started to suffer the harm of being targeted by an irate employer."
Hicks say FPL put him on probation, cut his pay, lowered his performance rating level and eventually fired him, claiming his position was only temporary.
The St. Lucie plant was built in 1976 and contains two nuclear reactors in separate containment buildings.
Hicks seeks back pay and benefits, compensatory damages and attorney's fees.
He is represented by Peter Ticktin of Deerfield Beach.