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McGregor v. the NRC

Why did the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fire one of its toughest plant inspectors?



The last thing Leonard McGregor needed was another meeting, he figured. There was plenty for him to do at work, at Commonwealth Edison's Dresden nuclear power station, and he was reluctant to waste time with administrative chores. But meetings, he knew, were part of the job--he was senior resident inspector at Dresden for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission--and word had come down through the chain of command that Bert Davis, his boss's boss's boss's boss, wanted to see him at regional headquarters in Glen Ellyn. So on Thursday, March 26, 1987, he left his home in suburban Woodridge and turned north instead of south. By the time he got back home, his world had been turned upside down.

As of that day, McGregor--a balding, stocky, bulldog-faced man in his early 50s--had almost 30 years of experience with nuclear power. In the Seabees, the Navy's fabled construction corps, he had operated and maintained land-based power plants from Panama to Antarctica. After an honorable discharge in 1977, he worked as lead start-up engineer for United Engineers and Constructors at the Salem II nuclear power plant in New Jersey. When that job ended, he signed up in September 1978 with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He was sent to Three Mile Island in 1979 in the aftermath of the accident there, and he spent three crucial years (1982-85) as senior resident inspector at Commonwealth Edison's Braidwood reactors, south of Joliet, while they were under construction.

Resident inspectors are the NRC's eyes and ears on the building sites of nuclear power plants. Necessarily generalists, they inspect everything from pipes to diesel engines to concrete pouring--all that goes into the construction of a complicated nuclear plant. At Braidwood, McGregor was a leading member of the inspection team that documented a major breakdown in Com Ed's "quality-assurance" program there. On one occasion he found (and showed a visiting inspector) some 500 stainless-steel identification plates piled in the corner of a contractor's quality-assurance vault. The plates were supposed to be welded to pipe segments to tell where the segments had come from and at what temperatures and pressures they could be safely used; workers had cut the plates off during installation and now no one could tell what belonged to which.

McGregor had a reputation as a no-nonsense enforcer. More than once he had stopped tests that Edison employees were fudging. In one case the test engineer had had trouble getting fuel to the diesel engines that were meant to provide emergency power to the plant during a blackout. Because the fuel-oil supply tank had been installed (contrary to specifications) on the floor instead of overhead, fuel tended to drain out of the diesels and back into the storage tank; the diesels were supposed to be able to reach full power within ten seconds, but it commonly took more than a minute to start them, and sometimes they wouldn't start at all. Edison's engineer had "solved" the problem by conducting a maintenance run: he'd start the engines immediately before the test, shut them down, and then start them up for the test before the fuel could drain out. McGregor didn't think much of this as a way of guaranteeing an emergency power source, and he would have none of it.

His diligence began costing Edison time, and therefore money. In one of his first inspections (numbered 82-05), he found, among other things, that many of the bolts holding down Braidwood's steam generators were loose, missing, cut off short, or deformed by excessive force. Worse, Edison had known of these problems for many months without correcting them or telling the agency. That report cost the company a $100,000 civil penalty, the first the NRC had ever levied against an Edison reactor under construction.

The same diligence that made McGregor unpopular with Edison management made him unpopular with some NRC colleagues. James G. Keppler, the former NRC administrator for this area (Region III), says, "There was a general feeling that Mr. McGregor was very good at identifying issues [possible problems] and had a great deal of difficulty putting them to bed, resolving them,"--or, as they say in the trade, "closing them out." McGregor in turn suspected Keppler and company of ignoring issues just to please the utility and make their own jobs easier, especially as Braidwood drew closer to licensing time. Nor was McGregor shy about bringing up what he saw as conflicts of interest--such as the Region III inspector responsible for closing out many of the questionable items at Braidwood sharing ownership of a boat with a Commonwealth Edison manager.

Perhaps partly as a result of this animosity, McGregor himself had been accused of three serious violations of NRC rules--breaching the confidentiality of an informant, leaking NRC information to the Tribune, and taping other inspectors' telephone conversations. In each case the agency's Office of Inspector and Auditor (OIA) investigated and failed to find him guilty. But that did little to improve the atmosphere; early in 1988, McGregor was complaining that someone was activating his beeper constantly as a form of harassment, and he was contemplating a defamation-of-character lawsuit against as many as half a dozen Region III employees.

In September 1985, as Braidwood was getting close to licensing hearings, and as many of the irregularities he'd found there were being closed out, the NRC transferred McGregor to the nuclear power plant at Dresden--an unusual move that took him off his job at Braidwood before it was finished. But the aging Dresden, southwest of Joliet near the Illinois River, was no quiet backwater, either. In the weeks before the March 26, 1987, meeting with Bert Davis, McGregor found a multitude of issues: metal support plates pulling out of the concrete walls in which they were supposed to be embedded; 2,500 cubic yards of radioactively contaminated soil piled on the site, and six more contaminated areas outside the Dresden fence near the Illinois River; safety-related wiring that was not adequate; and half of the Dresden plant operators failing their requalification tests. Three more incidents were so serious that McGregor wrote civil penalty reports on them, explaining why the NRC would be imposing fines on Edison. In one case, a large culvert had been left open, allowing any would-be infiltrators easy access underneath the security fence; in another, inexperienced operators inadvertently heated up one reactor; and in a third, Edison employees started up one reactor without first replacing the air inside its containment building with a safely inert gas. McGregor's only assistants were an inspector in training (not much help) and a half-time secretary.

Bert Davis had replaced James Keppler as regional administrator in February 1987. McGregor was pleased that Davis seemed willing at least to listen to his concerns. "He seemed very interested, he was a new man. I thought I had his ear and he was going to help me out."

That March morning, McGregor found out differently. Summoned to NRC regional headquarters in Glen Ellyn, he sat down with Davis, Davis's deputy Carl Paperiello, and regional counsel Bruce Berson. Davis announced that he had received a sworn statement from Henry Zimmerman, a Commonwealth Edison employee, that McGregor had called him and discussed falsified diesel-test records at Braidwood.

In a flash McGregor realized this was not a meeting of four colleagues--it was three on one, and he was the one. Now he says, "Why was some Commonwealth Edison employee writing an affidavit about me? I knew right then it wasn't good news. Zimmerman and I didn't get along very well in the start-up program." (Zimmerman, in fact was the engineer whose idea for "maintenance starts" of the diesels McGregor had quashed.) "I knew right then and there we had another OIA investigation coming down the pike, and this one was serious.

"I froze. I was very apprehensive. I was guarded. I didn't have my notes; I felt naked." His job, his credibility, his reputation were on the line.

McGregor had more reason to worry than he knew. Davis, Paperiello, and Berson were deliberately holding out on him. Besides the diesel question, Zimmerman had sworn in his affidavit that in the same phone call McGregor had indirectly offered not to bring up the diesel testing issue, if in return Zimmerman would testify in the defamation-of-character lawsuit McGregor was considering filing against NRC colleagues.

When McGregor did learn of this allegation, a couple of weeks later, he hotly denied it. The NRC's Office of Inspector and Auditor proceeded to spend seven months investigating the charge, and in November concluded that they couldn't conclude anything. No one else had been listening in on that phone call, and it boiled down to a "swearing contest" between Zimmerman and McGregor. (OIA as a matter of policy doesn't try to decide credibility issues.)

But McGregor's superiors looked the case over and decided they could tell which one was lying. They chose to believe the Commonwealth Edison man over one of their best inspectors. "This is an extremely serious offense," says NRC counsel Dennis Dambly. "It goes to the heart and soul of the agency's mission. Never in the past has there been a case in this agency where someone has been accused of covering up a safety issue for personal gain." On March 8, 1988, Davis fired McGregor "in order to promote the efficiency of the Federal Service."

It is possible that the NRC misjudged its man; instead of going quietly and taking the severance pay, McGregor appealed his dismissal to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). For nine days at the end of June and in the beginning of July, on the 31st floor of the Kluczynski federal building, his two attorneys and two from the NRC went at it under the eye of MSPB administrative judge Stephen E. Manrose. (The judge first spent an entire morning trying unsuccessfully to get the two parties to agree to an out-of-court settlement.) No later than today, July 22, Manrose must decide whether McGregor was properly fired.

Even without the time and expense of a board hearing, firing a federal employee is no quick fix. The NRC administrators believe they have a case against McGregor--both because of the Zimmerman affidavit and because McGregor has changed his version of the story more than once.

But this story does not begin with a swearing contest in which two men tell contradictory tales, their careers hanging in the balance. McGregor v. NRC is also about how Commonwealth Edison built its newest nuclear reactor, and about how anxious the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was to get that reactor licensed fast and without much fuss. Even if McGregor is found guilty as charged, the evidence suggests that the NRC, the nuclear industry's watchdog, was anxious not to bark too loudly or at the wrong time. And that evidence in itself lends credence to McGregor's own belief that his agency wanted him off the job and out of the spotlight before the Zimmerman affidavit ever saw the light of day.

In 1981, the year before McGregor was assigned to Braidwood, the NRC found six "items of noncompliance" in the plant being built. McGregor became the agency's resident inspector in January 1982. That year, problem findings suddenly tripled, to 18. During 1982 and 1983, with McGregor on the scene (he did not conduct every inspection; some are done by specialists from regional headquarters), the agency turned up almost as many issues as it had in the entire previous six years of Braidwood's construction history.

This comes as no surprise to those who worked with him. "Mac was a workaholic," says Bob Schulz, an NRC inspector who worked closely with McGregor for two years at Braidwood. "He was usually there when I got there and there after I left. . . . He had a nose for where there were safety problems. One finding he insisted on was Edison's failure to clean out some piping components. The company refused to open the system to clean it. Later, they had to cut one section open for rework, and found a green Lowenbrau beer bottle in it." Duane Boyd, who supervised McGregor at Dresden, wished for six more inspectors just like him. "The only negative thing I could say was that he worked too many hours."

Nor were his findings picky nickel-and-dime stuff. His inspection of April-July 1982 (documented in Inspection Report 82-05) described a breakdown of Commonwealth Edison's quality-assurance program in the installation of crucial mechanical parts of the plant, including steam generators and safety-related pumps. As early as July 1980, Com Ed had known that its contractor was installing equipment without regard to federal regulations, Edison's own quality-assurance manual, or the plant's design specification's. Not only did the company allow installation to continue willy-nilly, it did not notify the NRC of the problem until more than two years had elapsed. (Such violations are supposed to be reported within 24 hours.) For this and other foul-ups, the NRC fined the utility $100,000--the first time it had ever imposed a civil penalty on an Edison plant under construction.

The company had to pay up, but it didn't have to like it. Edison claimed it had already found those problems and had been working on them. In September 1982 it brought in Michael Wallace to manage the Braidwood project.

Wallace describes NRC activities at this time as, "regulatory chaos," and claims that McGregor and company kept reinterpreting regulations in new and unpredictable ways. For instance, in testimony filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission, Wallace complained that the NRC wanted individual welds inspected and documented in the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems (HVAC). This is much too detailed, says Wallace. A more efficient way to make sure the welds are done right is to have "programmatic controls" rather than inspecting each job. If the welder is supposed to be qualified, first make sure all the welders on site are qualified--then you don't have to verify it on a document for every weld. Likewise, they're supposed to use acceptable weld filler: if the contractor buys only acceptable weld filler, and that's verified, why bother checking it at every job spot?

This kind of thing drives McGregor crazy. "There's a good word for that," he says of Wallace's views. "'Lack of implementation.' It's true with the NRC, it's true with Commonwealth Edison, it's true with the contractors.

"I'm sorry, you can't believe the welder. Maybe he's got a hangover or somebody's welding under his number. These requirements [for individual weld verification] were laid down by the code, and Commonwealth Edison agreed on how to do it when they wrote their final safety analysis report [before beginning construction]. They said how they'd build it and test it, and now they want to do it some other way.

"The point is to check on the implementation of all these things--not just look at what the licensee [the utility] has for you. Many reports [of violations] get closed out on the basis of what the licensee says was done. 'Oh, we've tested the welder and he's OK.' But no one went and looked [at what he did]. When you close out something on Edison's say-so, you might just as well stay in the office."

McGregor's go-and-look methodology turned up a number of possible problems in piping, HVAC, and electrical installations at Braidwood, too, but his supervisor thought they would make report 82-05 too cumbersome, and so they were held out. The NRC sent in a team of inspectors the following year to do a special quality-assurance inspection on those three areas. They followed, and went beyond, McGregor's leads.

They found trouble: "inadequate contractor programs and workmanship, inadequate licensee reviews of the contractor programs, and inadequate licensee quality assurance overview to ensure contractor activities met all requirements. [These all] indicate the need for more aggressive CECo management involvement . . . to ensure that all safety-related activities . . . are in accordance with the regulations, codes, standards, and license requirements.

The lessons of 82-05 didn't seem to be percolating into other areas. The inspectors, their section chiefs, and their branch chiefs catalogued the violations, drafted and revised the report (83-09), and told regional administrator James Keppler they believed it was serious enough to merit another $100,000 fine. According to the testimony of inspector Bob Schulz, who was at the meeting, Keppler said, "We can't issue 'a civil penalty because it could kill them."--that is, the condemnation implicit in a second fine might force Com Ed to shut down the Braidwood project. Report 83-09 went out--without any penalty.

Keppler has denied making that statement, but he is on record with several similar ones--that if Braidwood were to go under, he didn't want it to be because of the NRC; that a $100,000 penalty would "probably" hurt the project "significantly."

The stakes were not small. Had the inspectors' recommendations gone through, that second $100,000 fine could well have been a knockout blow not only to Braidwood but, on a national level, to the remains of the nuclear industry. This was not just any old nuclear plant, but the latest product of the most experienced nuclear utility in the United States. For several (pre-McGregor) years, NRC's Region III had assumed it could handle this project with a minimum of inspection, while the agency focused on the troubled projects of less experienced builders. Another large penalty for persistent flaws throughout the plant would have been devastating. Needless to say, regulatory administrators do not advance their careers by killing the regulated industry, or even by seeming to do so--NRC regulators seem to feel responsible for the success or failure of private utilities' nuclear power plants.

"I was well aware that the project was in some jeopardy," Keppler testified earlier this year. "I was well aware that I had lost [nuclear plant] projects in Region III [Midland, in Michigan; Marble Hill, in Indiana; and Zimmer, in Ohio], and I didn't want to lose another one." Keppler also says he removed the penalty not because it would kill the project, but because he didn't yet know whether the vast documentation discrepancies at Braidwood were covering up actual construction faults in the plant.

To find that out, he and Edison together designed the massive Braidwood Construction Assessment Program (BCAP, pronounced "bee-cap"). According to Michael Wallace, BCAP eventually showed few "design significant defects" in the plant, a finding that Keppler considered a vindication and McGregor considered a joke. The absence of "design significant defects" means not that the plant was built according to original specifications, but that company inspectors looked at how it had been built, after the fact, and concluded that none of the deviations from the plan would cause a safety problem. And then--in what McGregor sees as one more paper closeout the NRC took Commonwealth Edison's word for it.

But that's getting ahead of the story. While the inspections that led to BCAP were going on, McGregor remained a large, sharp thorn in Edison's side. (Wallace complained that McGregor was hard to understand and communicate with, that he would go off on tangents and not come to the point.) In January 1984 the utility had to increase the plant's estimated cost by $474,643,000--almost half a billion dollars--and push the projected completion date back six months. Project manager Wallace later explained to the Illinois Commerce Commission that the increase "reflects the fact that the NRC was generally imposing more stringent Quality Assurance, Quality Control and general documentation standards on the Braidwood Project." Who at the NRC? "As I have previously testified, most of these requirements were the result of NRC resident inspector interpretations of NRC requirements." And at that time there was just one resident inspector at Braidwood--Leonard McGregor.

But as the plant drew closer to operation, he needed help, and in April 1984 Bob Schulz, who had been a big part of the 83-09 investigation, joined him as resident inspector for construction, while McGregor specialized in operations. Although theoretically distinct, in practice their work often overlapped. The red-headed Schulz is young, impulsive, and tends to wear his Christianity on his sleeve--but he and McGregor shared a strong commitment to the NRC's safety mission and a bias against taking the utility's word at face value.

The crunch year for Braidwood, 1985, also proved to be one for McGregor and Schulz. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board prepared to open hearings in October on whether the plant should be licensed to operate. At the same time, the inspectors found themselves under increasing pressure to close out unresolved problems from past years. In April, Keppler assigned William Little to supervise the Braidwood inspectors. Keppler acknowledged in his sworn deposition that Little had a reputation as a "weak regulator"; more colorfully, Schulz testified that Little was nicknamed "the undertaker" because of his alleged propensity to bury issues.

McGregor and Schulz didn't like the way Little huddled with Wallace in their absence; they didn't like the way he consistently sided with the more lenient of the specialist inspectors from Region III. They thought it was absurd when the order came in writing for Schulz to look only at new construction work (supposedly BCAP was taking care of all problems in "old work") and for McGregor to look only at operations and not construction. From Little's side, it was the other two who were hard to deal with: when specialist inspectors were called in from Region III to look at their findings, McGregor would sometimes disagree with them, refuse to sign off, and even (according to Keppler) go back and reinspect areas they had OK'd. This would be hard enough to take under normal circumstances (resident inspectors are generalists, the visiting, inspectors specialists), but it was even worse at a time when, everyone was feeling pressure to get the job done; here was McGregor insisting, "It's not really done yet."

The animosities grew, curdled, became increasingly personal. For the first (and last) time, McGregor got a less than favorable performance rating (from Little). McGregor believed Little instigated an OIA investigation into whether he, McGregor, had been taping other inspectors' phone calls without their knowledge. (It turned out that the tapes were made by a defective answering machine; but in the course of the investigation McGregor was threatened with criminal prosecution.) And McGregor discovered that one of his colleagues from Region III was the co-owner of a boat with a Com Ed manager.

The conflict escalated. Keppler once asked McGregor what would make him happy; he responded with the names of three inspectors he thought should be fired. And according to the testimony of Duane Boyd, McGregor's former supervisor, another NRC inspector told Boyd, "We're gonna get his [McGregor's] ass, we're gonna get him fired one way or another."

The root of the disagreement wasn't unusual irascibility or personality problems on either side, as Boyd makes clear. "McGregor's findings were very specific. He had an issue with the bolts on the steam generator supports. When Mr. Muffett [a Region III specialist inspector] went to close it out, he took the licensee's package, which said, 'Yea, verily, we have done thus and such.' Muffett said, 'That's satisfactory to me,' and brought it back. And McGregor wouldn't sign off"--properly so, in Boyd's view, "because this licensee has a horrible track record."

In March 1985, in an unprecedented development, two dozen quality-control inspectors for Comstock Electric, one of Com Ed's subcontractors at Braidwood, crowded into the NRC inspectors' Braidwood office to complain about being harassed in their work. It appeared that pressure to get the job done, up to and including physical threats, was compromising their independent ability to check that it was getting done right. McGregor and Schulz put them on the phone to Keppler himself, and the next day wrote a memo recommending that the NRC issue a stop-work order on electrical construction until the agency could make sure it was proceeding correctly. No such order was forthcoming, and it was three months before the agency sent any investigators out to follow up. In McGregor's view, this delay left the matter in the hands of the same utility whose lax supervision had provided a climate conducive to harassment in the first place. Said a disheartened Bob Schulz, "I knew after it was turned over to the licensee the people weren't coming again to the NRC."

The upcoming Braidwood licensing hearings were unusual in two ways--first that they were contested at all (most nuclear plant licenses are not), and second, that they were contested not on general environmental grounds ("Where will the waste go?" etc) but on specific, technical issues that had first been raised by NRC inspectors on the scene. Most such licensing proceedings have little to do with the work of people like McGregor; this one did.

And oddly enough, on September 1, 1985, a few weeks before the hearing opened, Keppler transferred McGregor out of the plant whose progress he had been following closely for almost four years. He was disappointed--"Naturally I wanted to see the job I was on completed." Schulz was surprised: "Normal practice is not to remove a senior resident right before licensing hearings. . . . He knows the whole plant. He knows the problems. He knows how the problems are fixed. . . . It's just not a practice to transfer right before licensing. You'd go through the licensing hearings and then transfer him because [of] the man's expertise and the hours he spent on the site." Even Michael Wallace, no friend of McGregor's, was astonished: "It seemed a very inopportune time for an inspector to be leaving the site."

McGregor was moved to Dresden, and Dresden senior resident inspector Tom Tongue was moved to Braidwood. The official reason was that Tongue had been at Dresden long enough to get comfortable (about five years), and the station (which includes two active and one shut-down reactor) needed some tougher regulation. Unofficially, McGregor's absence from Braidwood made it easier to close out unresolved items (especially since his replacement had not been trained on that type of reactor), made it impossible for him to find any new problems, and eased the "interpersonal problems" at Braidwood. It also gave NRC lawyers grounds for trying to prevent McGregor from testifying before the licensing board about a plant that he arguably knew more thoroughly than any other individual working for the U.S. government.

(The NRC failed. Lawyers from Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), representing objectors to the plant's licensing, subpoenaed McGregor to testify. He recalls the episode with some amusement. Every time BPI's lawyer--a South Carolinian named Bob Guild--asked McGregor a question, "It was like the photo finish of a horse race" whether the Edison or the NRC attorney would be first up to object and try to prevent him from answering.)

McGregor still believes that his transfer was the order of Edison CEO James O'Connor to James Keppler. There is no proof, and it seems likely that if it were only a question of Edison muscle they might have arranged for him to go inspect some other utility's plant. But his departure certainly made it easier for the company and the agency to achieve their mutual goal of not "losing" Braidwood.

The high-stakes game was not over. At the same time Little gave McGregor his less-than-favorable evaluation, he didn't give Schulz an evaluation at all, but held the threat of one over his head. The anxious young man decided to go along, do things Little's way, and get out of the NRC with a good recommendation. "Issues weren't assigned to me, so it was easy. That was the easiest three months I had with the NRC--but sleeping at night was hard."

Michael Wallace appears to have been sleeping better. "At the end of 1985, Braidwood entered a period of regulatory stability," he told the ICC, "in which Edison achieved remarkable progress in completing the Braidwood units. This period of regulatory stability did not come about spontaneously. Rather, it was a direct result of Edison's diligent efforts towards winning the NRC's confidence . . ." Shortly after New Year's, Schulz got his evaluation and a job at the Tennessee Valley Authority.

McGregor found plenty to do at Dresden--at one point, he says, an Edison official dropped by to ask him, "How many more torpedoes are you going to fire at this old tub?" and McGregor characteristically explained that he wasn't firing torpedoes, he was finding them. But the animosity from Braidwood continued to simmer, even though the plant was eventually licensed on a split two-to-one decision of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. Coworkers told McGregor that there was a whispering campaign against him in certain offices at regional headquarters. After he was threatened with criminal prosecution and accused of a sexual affair, he began consulting with lawyers about filing a lawsuit for defamation of character against five or six NRC employees. Such suits are notoriously difficult to prove, though, and the attorneys dissuaded him.

He became increasingly suspicious of NRC management. He did suspend that suspicion somewhat in February, when Bert Davis, Keppler's longtime assistant, succeeded to Keppler's job as administrator of Region III.

Davis may have seemed sympathetic to McGregor. But he told another Region III manager that he [Davis] had heard about the McGregor problem for the last time and was going to do whatever he could to resolve it. And he told three regional managers (according to notes taken by counsel Bruce Berson), "that . . . as a straw man . . . perhaps he ought to have a meeting with McGregor and the other personnel involved and try to resolve the problem." (Davis denies that "straw man" in this case carries its dictionary definition--"one who is set up as cover or front man for a questionable enterprise.") In February he sent Berson to Washington to confer with headquarters lawyers and personnel officers. And he spoke to the chairmnan of the entire NRC about the situation.

Meanwhile, says McGregor, on February 25, 1987, in the midst of his busy time at Dresden, he came into his office and picked up the ringing phone. The man on the other end asked for him by name, and (in what McGregor later suspected to be a fake southern accent) hinted that there might have been some falsified diesel tests at Braidwood run by a black engineer named "DeVert." McGregor questioned him and tried to get his name or some other means of contact, but the caller hung up.

As allegations go in the life of an NRC inspector, this wasn't an especially convincing one. It was general--McGregor had to elicit much of the information by asking questions--the caller seemed evasive and largely ignorant of the organization of the plant; the caller made racial slurs; and the caller claimed the tests had been signed off before the system was installed. When McGregor let fall the word "allegation," the caller denied he was making one. All in all, to McGregor, who had witnessed much of the diesel testing at Braidwood, it didn't sound like much. But it was something, and no matter how implausible it needed some looking into.

McGregor now suspects that some unfriendly NRC colleague put an acquaintance up to making the call just to harass him. If so, he fell into the trap all too eagerly. He wanted to look and see. But he was a good year and a half beyond his Braidwood assignment. Normal agency drill is to report the allegation to his boss, to the regional "allegation coordinator," or to the Braidwood resident inspector. Having done that, his hands would be clean.

McGregor says that he couldn't reach the first two (although agency officials insist the allegation coordinator's phone is always answered during business hours). He thumbed through Braidwood site phone books and found no one named DeVert; then he says he forgot about it until, on the afternoon of Friday the 27th, he thought of a quick, easy way to find out if there was anything to it. Henry Zimmerman had worked on the diesels. He would know if such an engineer had been there.

Fatefully, McGregor picked up the phone and called Zimmerman at Braidwood. It would have been wiser, and more cautious, to call his boss instead, but McGregor had always been a go-and-see kind of fellow. In McGregor's version of the call, Zimmerman said he knew no engineer named DeVert, and no black engineer who worked on the diesels. (There was however a black engineer named LeVert, who worked in fire protection.) He and McGregor agreed they wanted no part of any possible cover-up; McGregor said something about the rumors about his transfer to Dresden, and Zimmerman made a noncommittal response.

Zimmerman's recollection, sworn to in an affidavit on March 6, is significantly different. He says McGregor called to get information in support of his defamation-of-character lawsuit, and in particular about Edison's hand in his transfer. Zimmerman disclaimed any knowledge of what Michael Wallace, the plant manager, had said to his superiors about McGregor; he said he didn't want to be involved in the suit. The core of the case against McGregor comes in two paragraphs in Zimmerman's sworn record of the call:

"Len said that he had a lot of information on activities out here. I asked him to explain. He said 'more specifically Mr. Dwight N. LeVert.' . . . Len said he wanted to be specific, that he knew Dwight falsified some records on the Diesel. I asked if he (Len) felt that I knew about this. He said 'why of course.'

"At some time, in the conversation . . . not necessarily at this point, but most likely when he first mentioned that he had information on a lot of things . . . he said that he did have the option to bring forth what he wants in his lawsuit." And a little later, "I insisted that I would not be a party to any cover-up. He said that he wasn't going to cover anything up."

The conversation happened on a Friday afternoon. The following Monday morning, Commonwealth Edison's top outside lawyer was on the phone to Region III headquarters, and Administrator Davis's "McGregor problem" had taken quite a new turn.

Around these two versions of the same phone call swirls a whirlwind of subsequent contradictions, inconsistencies, and suspicious circumstances. At the administrative hearing, NRC authorities alleged that:

Com Ed's computerized security records for Dresden show that McGregor was not in his office until more than an hour after the time he estimates he received the anonymous phone call. (He says he must have misestimated the time, but he usually wears a watch, and that office has a large wall clock as well.)

McGregor didn't report the anonymous allegation until after he was confronted with the existence of the Zimmerman affidavit at the March 26, 1987, meeting.

He didn't reveal that he had taken notes of the anonymous call until a few days after that (McGregor says he did tell Davis et al at the meeting: it's his word against that of the other three).

He didn't tell anyone that he had typed up a draft report of the anonymous call until a February 9, 1988, meeting.

He at first said he didn't report the anonymous allegation because the caller said it wasn't an allegation; later he said he didn't report it because he concluded it was so flimsy he put it "at the bottom of the totem pole and forgot about it" in the press of Dresden work. (But that forgetting, say NRC managers, didn't keep him from calling Zimmerman, nor did it keep him from a very uncharacteristic stint on the typewriter.)

He first accepted Zimmerman's use of the name "LeVert" and only later started insisting the caller had said "DeVert." They conclude that McGregor invented the anonymous call after he discovered Zimmerman had ratted on him.

McGregor, for his part, finds it suspicious that news of his phone call to Zimmerman made its way to the top of Edison's hierarchy in the narrow space of one weekend. ("If they had really thought there was a problem out there in the diesels, they wouldn't be calling the NRC about it. They'd spend a couple of weeks first, making sure they had things in good shape before calling anybody else in on it.") Sharon Connelly, director of NRC's Office of Inspector and Auditor, met with and advised Region III officials in March 1987. If this was indeed the worst case of alleged misconduct in agency history, why did she have few notes and fewer memories of that advice? If the allegation raised such a serious safety issue, why did Region III officials wait almost a month to start investigating it, but wasted little time at all in jetting to Washington in mid-March to discuss its consequences to McGregor? And why, after a seven-month OIA investigation concluded to reach no conclusion, did Region III officials take it upon themselves to go over the evidence once more? In doing so, why were they so much more interested in tracing McGregor's course of conduct than Zimmerman's? ("If I were the government attorney," says McGregor's lawyer James Geocaris, "I would have wanted to talk to the whole chain of command above Mike Wallace to see how this allegation was put together," both to evaluate Henry Zimmerman's possible motives and to make sure that the NRC wasn't simply being set up as the instrument of Com Ed's revenge on McGregor.)

A few undisputed facts serve only to confuse the matter further: No one ever turned up any "DeVert." "LeVert" was indeed a black engineer on site, but he worked only in fire protection, not diesels. And there was a black engineer with an entirely different name who worked on testing the diesel fuel oil transfer system early on, and whose tests were so bad they had had to be completely redone.

People sometimes resort to a kind of reverse logic in cases like this: "I couldn't have lied, because if I had been going to do so, I would have done a better job of it." Unfortunately, that line of argument can be applied to both sides in the McGregor case.

Surely if Zimmerman really wanted to sandbag McGregor, he could have concocted a more damning story than this extremely oblique, implicit offer of an illicit quid pro quo, involving a vaguely defined test and McGregor's naming an engineer who could not possibly have had a connection with it. On the other hand, if McGregor invented his anonymous call, surely he would have had the wit to place it at a time when he could prove he was in his office, and to create his notes and typed version in more convincing fashion, and produce them promptly, for maximum deterrent effect.

Neither side seems terribly logical. Did either have anything significant to gain? Zimmerman had earlier been transferred from testing supervisor in the Braidwood start-up organization, in which he supervised 30 to 40 people, to a job in construction spare parts, where he supervised three. One can speculate--and this is McGregor's opinion--that Zimmerman may have stood to regain favor with management, and especially with Wallace, his fast-rising superior two times removed, if the chance phone call from McGregor turned out to be something serious. On the other hand, Zimmerman had something to lose in bringing news of the phone call to Wallace: in effect, he was calling management's attention to the charge that he, Zimmerman, might be implicated in testing improprieties; if such improprieties were found, and if he were held responsible for them, he knew he could be subject to legal proceedings. Zimmerman testified that he agonized before signing the affidavit, asking various Com Ed officials what they thought he should do. None of them, he said, suggested that he would further his career by signing the affidavit, and in fact he said that he's received no benefit whatever. In the end, he testified, "I felt that this was something I had to do because it was the right thing."

But if Zimmerman's version of the phone call is true, what did McGregor stand to gain by making it? It is hard to see anything. McGregor's contemplated lawsuit had to do with NRC colleagues--nobody Zimmerman knew--who had been bad-mouthing him, not with his transfer out of Braidwood. Even if it had had to do with his transfer, why would Zimmerman, a lowly testing supervisor, have been privy to what Wallace said to O'Connor or O'Connor to Keppler? The most he could have testified to was that there had been rumors around the plant, and he even denied hearing them.

Even if Zimmerman did know something about what happened at Edison headquarters downtown, he had no reason whatsoever to sympathize with McGregor, who had rejected several of his tests and whom Zimmerman had described as an "incompetent" and a "roadblock." Alternatively, if Zimmerman knew something but was unsympathetic, how could McGregor expect to pressure Zimmerman by saying that LeVert, a fire protection engineer who had nothing to do with diesels, had falsified diesel test records before the diesels were installed? You don't put the arm on somebody by suggesting that they have guilty knowledge of a manifest impossibility--especially if it's someone with whom you've had run-ins in the past, someone who might conceivably take advantage of a heaven-sent opportunity to get even.

Meanwhile, both reactors at Braidwood have their full-power operating licenses and will soon be up to speed; Michael Wallace has been promoted; Henry Zimmerman is now lead engineer for Edison's Facilities Improvement Program; Bob Schulz has a new job in Springfield with the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety; and Leonard McGregor's career and reputation depend on a judge's opinion.

BPI lawyer Bob Guild spent a year and a half in Chicago arguing against Braidwood's licensing. In that time he became familiar with McGregor's work and became something of a fan.

"The NRC," he says, "has never fired an inspector for failing to do his job. Did they discipline the inspectors who looked at Braidwood before he did, when it was getting gilt-edged report cards? Of course not! They've clearly got this vendetta against McGregor. The amount of energy this agency has spent trying to get rid of him is astounding.

"The man should have received medals from the very beginning. His work is in the finest tradition of protecting the public health and safety. Instead, he's been castigated and hounded out of his job."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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