Professionalism/The GE Three



Gregory C. Minor, Richard B. Hubbard, and Dale G. Bridenbaugh (the GE Three) were three former managing nuclear engineers working for General Electric and they have spent most of their career building nuclear reactors. However, on February 2, 1976, these three engineers resigned from the division of General Electric that built nuclear reactors[1] and they told the public that " nuclear power presented a profound threat to mankind"[2].

Browns Ferry AccidentEdit

One thing that made these engineers realize the danger of nuclear power is the accident on March 22, 1975. Minor was working on the reactor and control room design for a GE plant called “ Browns Ferry” in Alabama. An employee went looking for air leaks with a candle. The candle accidently ignited polyurethane foam, which is used to plug leaks (between the cable spreading room and the reactor building). The fire went on for seven and a half hours, caused damage to the electrical system and control system. One of the nuclear reactors even went out of control for hours after the fire. Although no one died in the accident, catastrophe was avoided by sheer luck. Minor learned from the accident that "no matter how well a plant was designed, something could always go wrong"[3][4]. Coincidentally, over the course of that year, Dale Bridenbaugh had discussions with his colleagues and boss about his concerns about the safety in the nuclear power plant program. [4]

Design Flaws of Mark 1 Nuclear ReactorsEdit

These three engineers were also reviewing the design of a nuclear reactor GE was manufacturing -- Mark 1 nuclear reactor. GE marketed the Mark 1 Nuclear Reactor to be cheaper and easier to build, but in fact, they used a smaller and less expensive containment structure. These three engineers became increasingly convinced that the design of Mark 1 was so flawed that it could lead to a devastating accident[5]. The design flaws of Mark 1 Nuclear Reactors gained attention after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster since 5 of the 6 nuclear reactors in the accident were Mark 1[6]. Although such design flaws have been exposed, there are still 23 Mark 1 Nuclear Reactors that operate today in the United States. However, these reactors were all retrofitted in the late 1980s to address the original concerns of the GE three. The retrofits involved additional ventilation to prevent overpressurization of the containment unit, among other safety fallback mechanisms. [7]

GE Three: Post-ResignationEdit

The GE Three also founded a consulting firm called MHB Technical Associates, in San Jose, California. For 20 years they conducted studies and testified on the safety, reliability, construction and economics of power plants. MHB was also the technical adviser on the 1979 movie, The China Syndrome, which was denounced by the nuclear industry but seemed prophetic when the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown that year.[4]

Figure 1: Soon after the resignation of the GE three and the Three Mile Island Accident, reactor construction gradually leveled off.

Anti-Nuclear MovementEdit

The movement against nuclear energy began in the 1960s. Early protesters were primarily concerned with the disposal of atomic waste. Since then, there have been numerous protests and rallies organized calling to end nuclear energy. [8] Anti-nuclear movement peaked in 1970s and 1980s[9]. The peak of such protests coincide with the resignations of the GE Three (1976). They gained the attention of journalists, and their disclosures about the threats of nuclear power had a significant media impact at the time. [10] Soon after their resignation, in 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown occured at the Three Mile Island reactor site near Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania. Although no one was injured during the event, a loss of cooling water eventually led to a partial meltdown of the core, with minor radioactive gas leaks. Clean-up and decontamination of the plant took 12 years and almost $1 billion. [11]

Government ResponseEdit

After the resignation of the GE three, Three Mile Incident, and numerous protests eventually forced the government to take action, change was very slow. In 1972, Steven Hanauer, a safety official at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), recommended that the US end support for nuclear reactors that utilized GE's pressure suppression containments. Hanauer had earlier expressed his concerns with this system, claiming that they were prone to leakages and over-pressurization, which would lead to a loss of containment. His superior at the AEC, Joseph Hendrie, agreed that Hanauer's concerns had merit, but rejected his proposal to end support on the grounds that "reversal of this hallowed policy, especially at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power."[12] In 1976, propositions for more government regulation and responsibility for nuclear reactors were voted on in 8 states. [8] The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 called for the Department of Energy to build and sustain " geologic repositories" to store spent nuclear fuel and waste product, with specific time frames in which to do so, and assigned the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to "develop standards for protection of the general environment from offsite releases of radioactive material." [13]

Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear DisasterEdit

Following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan, a series of explosions and a containment failure at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant resulted in media coverage of the GE Three. Bridenbaugh described design flaws of General Electric's Mark 1 reactors, which account for five of the six reactors at the Fukushima 1 power plant. Bridenbaugh claimed that the design "did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant" and that, despite efforts to retrofit the reactors, "the Mark 1 is still a little more susceptible to an accident that would result in a loss of containment."[14]

Are They Professionals?Edit

To answer this question, It's best to compare the GE Three to other engineering ethics case studies.

Dan Applegate and Turkish Airlines Flight 981Edit

Dan Applegate was Director of Product Engineering for Convair, a McDonnell-Douglas subcontractor, during the early 1970s.

On June 12, 1972, American Airlines Flight 96 lost its cargo door while flying over Windsor, Ontario. The pilots lost much of their control, but were able to land the aircraft safely. In the following investigation, it was learned that the door had improperly latched due to an electrical problem, and a locking mechanism that was supposed to ensure that the latches were in place could be forced closed even if they were not [15].

The "Applegate memorandum" was written on the 27th of June, and delivered to Applegate's immediate supervisor J.B. Hurt. Applegate voiced his concerns about potential design faults in the door. In his view, these faults would cause the aircraft’s cargo door to open mid-flight. Should this occur, there would be an instantaneous loss of cabin pressure in the cargo area. The cabin floor would then most likely buckle. He believed that if this were to happen in flight, the plane’s essential control lines would be cut and the pilots would lose control of the aircraft.

Unlike the GE Three, Applegate never went to the public with his findings. In 1974, Turkish Airlines Flight 981 crashed on the outskirts of Paris, killing all 346 people on board. It was later ascertained that the crash was due to the same technical fault Applegate had foreseen. The changes after the Flight 96 Incident had not been made to this aircraft, in spite of the service logs indicating that they had.[16]

Rodney Rocha and the Columbia DisasterEdit

During the launch of STS-107, Columbia's 28th mission, a piece of foam insulation broke off and struck the left wing. Previous shuttle launches had seen minor damage from foam shedding,[17], but some engineers suspected that the damage to Columbia was more serious.

A debris assessment team was formed, headed by Rodney Rocha. The team spent several days watching the video evidence of the impact in order to determine what happened. To do this, the engineers used a model to identify tile penetration depth after impact; it was later found that this model was not accurate. Despite this, the model predicted complete tile penetration, but the engineers discounted these results.[18] The guesswork in this analysis, as well as the risk associated with the outcomes of the analyses, were not made public within NASA. The engineers determined that high resolution imaging would be helpful and necessary in making a decision on the safety of the mission. The team was not granted these images. Thus, the team was left only with uncertainty and prior experience to make their decision.[18]

During reentry, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to destroy the wing, which caused the spacecraft to become unstable and break apart.[19]

It was later found that Rocha had drafted an email voicing his concerns about Columbia. In this email, he outlined his worries about the decisions being made by NASA management and asked for additional images.[20]. But Rocha didn't send the email because he was afraid of losing his job..

Unlike Rodney Rocha, the GE three blew the whistle despite the potential for a “career or conscience” situation to occur. According to Dale G. Bridenbaugh, upon hearing his recommendation that GE announce that they could not continue supporting their plants following his examination of the mk. one reactors, his boss replied with the warning that if those plants were shut down, it would "be the end of GE’s nuclear division", implying Bridenbaugh would lose his job.[21] Of course, Bridenbaugh resigned in spite of this conversation. Rocha, apparently afraid of the “shoot the messenger” antics such a mentality entails, did not speak up.


In his paper "Engineers who kill: Professional ethics and the paramountcy of public safety", Kenneth Kipniss argues that professionalism involves both expertise and a commitment to not work on projects that endanger public safety unless information about them is freely availiable.[22]. Examining our cases through this lens, it is apparent that neither Applegate nor Rocha ascribed to this belief. Even though Applegate was an expert in his field, working on a project that he thought endangered public safety, he did not come to the public with that information. Rocha was also an expert who had an opportunity to 'go public' to the rest of NASA with information about a project that was compromising the safety of Columbia's crew. However, due to potentially losing his job over it, he did not. The GE Three, on the other hand, were experts that deliberately quit their jobs and went public with the info about their unsafe projects. Therefore, by Kipniss's definition, the GE Three are professionals, and certainly more professional than Rocha or Applegate.


The problems with nuclear reactors in the United States were not promptly fixed because of the impracticality of modifying the large and expensive infrastructure of a nuclear reactor. The lesson to be learned from the mistakes made in the Mark 1 reactor and the GE three is to review extensively in the design process. If the GE three was able to find flaws in the design after construction, the flaws were present in the design on conception, and could have been addressed there. As Bridenbaugh said, "In the past we had been able to learn from our technological mistakes. With nuclear power we cannot afford that luxury." [23] The timeline of nuclear regulation also highlights the need for anticipatory governance. The earliest Mark 1 plant went into operation in 1969, yet concerns about the containment weren't even raised until 1972 (and those concerns were dismissed), with regulation on nuclear waste coming over a decade later.[12][13] Anticipatory governance allows us to anticipate the impacts of developments in technology, and pass appropriate legislation without waiting to see what impact the technology will have.[24]


  3. Weil, V. (n.d.). Moral Responsibility and Whistleblowing in the Nuclear Industry: Brown's Ferry and Three Mile Island. Retrieved from
  4. a b c
  7. Zeller, T. (2011, March 15). Experts Had Long Criticized Potential Weakness in Design of Stricken Reactor. Retrieved from
  8. a b Daubert, V., & Moran, S. (1985, March 1). Origins, Goals, and Tactics of the U.S. Anti-Nuclear Protest Movement. Retrieved from
  9. Herbert P. Kitschelt. Political Opportunity and Political Protest: Anti-Nuclear Movements in Four Democracies British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1986, p. 62.
  11. Three Mile Island Accident. (2001, March 1). World Nuclear Association. Retrieved from
  12. a b HAZARDS OF BOILING WATER REACTORS IN THE UNITED STATES. (1996, March 1). Retrieved from
  13. a b Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, 42 U.S.C. §10101 et seq. Retrieved from
  16. "Accident Details." Accident to Turkish Airlines DC-10 TC-JAV in the Ermenonville Forest on 3 March 1974 Final Report. French State Secretariat for Transport. 1. Retrieved on 13 February 2011.
  17. Columbia Accident Investigation Board (August 2003). "6.1 A History of Foam Anomalies (page 121)" (PDF). Retrieved June 26, 2014. 
  18. a b Gehrman, H. W. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (2003). Columbia accident investigation board report. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
  19. "Molten Aluminum found on Columbia's thermal tiles". USA Today. Associated Press. March 4, 2003. Retrieved August 13, 2007. 
  20. [1] Rocha, R. (2003, January 22). RE: STS-107 wing debris impact, request for outside photo-imaging help.
  22. Kipnis, K. (1981). Engineers who kill: Professional ethics and the paramountcy of public safety. Business & Professional Ethics Journal, 77-91.
  23. Weil, V. (n.d.). Moral Responsibility and Whistleblowing in the Nuclear Industry: Brown's Ferry and Three Mile Island. Retrieved from