Press focuses on nuclear whistleblowers after Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s post-Fukushima task force releases report on the safety of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors
July 22, 2011 - Comments Off
On July 12, 2011 the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission released an extensive report detailing its findings and recommendations after inspecting the safety conditions and procedures at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors. The task force was formed in reaction to the recent Fukushima Daiichi meltdown following Japan’s recent earthquake. Earlier progress reports issued by the task force have brought back sobering results which found US plants to be unprepared to prevent a meltdown in situations similar to Fukushima’s. The task force is set to hold a public meeting on its findings on July 28, 2011 in Rockville, Maryland.
In response to the report’s release CBS news filed a two-part investigative report on the safety conditions and culture at the nation’s reactors. The first, Fukushima-type disaster inevitable in U.S.?, focused on the safety conditions at TVA’s Watts Bar facility, the last nuclear plant to be licensed in the country. Located in Spring City, Tennessee, Watts Bar took 23 years and $8 billion to build. After a torrent of safety issues drew attention and concern to Watts Bar (for example, an independent report documented 5,081 “concerns” at the site) it was shut down for a period of years. It currently provides power to some 9 million people in seven states.
CBS reports that it obtained a copy of the NRC’s “Post Fukushima” report on the Watts Bar site from May 2011. Of the two nuclear engineers CBS had review the report, one gave Watts Bar a “D-“ calling it “appalling,” while the other pointed to more than 40 “disturbing findings” from the 40-hour inspection conducted by the NRC, including a lack of emergency responder training, faulty control panels, malfunctioning communications equipment, and issues with portable backup diesel generators.
But these risks have been kept under wraps, as nuclear whistleblowers at Watts Bar have been systematically silenced and retaliated against by plant management and by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally-chartered power corporation which owns Watts Bar. 71-year-old former Watts Bar employee Ann Harris, who blew the whistle herself on egregious safety shortcomings at Watts Bar, has since become a tireless advocate for nuclear whistleblowers. Harris, a Watts Bar instrumentation engineering clerk, refused to sign a multimillion-dollar construction contract riddled with errors. “Basically the books are being cooked,” Harris told CBS. “People are saying things—they swear under oath it’s been done, and it hasn’t been done.” TVA executives then told her that her career was over, Harris said. They also “ran me off the road. They wired my car for firebombing. They dropped the universal joint out of my car.”
Harris isn’t alone. In the 28 years since then she has taken hundreds of employees with similar complaints into her home, and has won a record of six whistleblower retaliation lawsuits against Watts Bar. CBS’s second report, Whistleblowers “terrified” at TVA nuke plants?, details the experiences of many of those employees when they raise safety concerns. The retaliatory culture is so widespread, in fact, that a 1986 external report documents “widespread intimidation, harassment, and discrimination by TVA management,” as well as “widespread mistrust.”
Curtis Overall, for example, was an award-winning Watts Bar employee who helped run the ice containment system that cooled the reactor. When he reported problems with that cooling system the day before Watts Bar was set to reopen in 1995, Overall received threatening notes and found a fake bomb in his car. Battling severe depression and heart complications, Overall died twelve years later without discovering who had harassed him.
More recently, Linda Nadeau, a twenty-year security guard for the TVA who worked for a time at Watts Bar, reported that other guards were sleeping on the job. She reports being “told by one of the supervisors that I am – above-average clean. I’m too moral. And I’m paranoid and eccentric.” She was fired in 2008 for “inappropriate abusive communication behavior.”
Earlier this year, a Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge found in favor of James Speegle, a foreman at the TVA’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Florence, Alabama who was fired in May 2004 after he reported serious problems with the protective coatings being used in the plant’s cooling system which could cause paint debris to clog emergency cooling pumps and prevent safe shutdown of the reactor during an accident. “James Speegle has been fighting his unlawful firing since 2005,” said David J. Marshall, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks, who recently won Speegle’s case before the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board and is currently preparing to defend the victory before the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “If you want to win a nuclear whistleblower case you just have to keep on fighting,” Marshall said. “That’s what it takes when you stand up against corporate greed.”