Whistle-Blowers on Safety Risks Betrayed by Nuclear Agency

In a Monitor exclusive, the NRC admits it told TVA utility the names of employees who warned of problems at atomic plants

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) - watchdog of America's nuclear power industry - has routinely blown the cover of whistle-blowers who revealed safety problems at nuclear plants.

An investigation by the NRC's inspector general has discovered that NRC officials were turning over whistle-blowers' identities to one of the nation's largest utilities, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The NRC regulators' actions violated federal policy protecting whistle-blowers, who are a major source of vital information about safety risks at nuclear power stations across the United States.

The inspector general's revelation could seriously erode public confidence in the NRC, which is frequently charged by safety advocates with being too cozy with the multibillion-dollar nuclear industry.

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David Williams, the NRC inspector general, says the regulatory agency failed to abide by a formal memorandum of understanding between NRC and TVA's Office of Inspector General (TVA-OIG). The memorandum requires that whistle-blower names be concealed unless individuals personally waive their confidentiality.

In a report marked ``Official Use Only'' obtained by the Monitor, Mr. Williams wrote that the NRC Office of Investigations disclosed to TVA-OIG - ``without the individuals' consent or knowledge - identities of allegers who believed their identities would be held confidential.''

After turning names over to TVA-OIG, the NRC also failed to follow through to make sure safety problems cited by whistle-blowers were properly investigated and corrected, Williams found.

Stephen Comley, founder of We the People Inc., a nuclear whistle-blower protection organization in Rowley, Mass., says he was not surprised by the inspector general's report.

He says: ``[This is] just a small underbelly of what's been going on inside the agency for years. Now we have, in writing, what all of us have suspected for so long.

``The NRC is more interested in promoting nuclear power than guarding the safety of the American public.''

What interests Mr. Comley and others outside the agency is not only that NRC would reveal the names of whistle-blowers, but also that there was a private NRC-TVA pact to share information involving safety allegations.

Although the pact includes provisions protecting the names of whistle-blowers, it has been routinely ignored.

Ann Harris, a TVA whistle-blower who has now gone public, says she was trying to work within the system when she took safety complaints about TVA to the NRC. At the time, Mrs. Harris was working at TVA's Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee as a unit supervisor of electrical engineering in construction.

``I did ask NRC to keep my name confidential, and I thought I had that promise. I guess I'm the original dummy,'' she says. Eventually, Harris reached an out-of-court settlement with TVA.

What especially angers Harris is that she led other TVA employees with safety concerns into the arms of the NRC Office of Investigations.

``I had taken these people to NRC in good faith, and they [NRC] were conspiring with TVA to shut us up,'' she charges. ``I felt just devastated that I could have unwittingly contributed to these people's further abuse by TVA.''

She continues: ``When you see a man lose his job or a woman lose her home ... you wonder, `How much did I contribute to it?' I feel very guilty that I helped contribute, possibly, to these people's misery.''

How did this happen? In the 1970s, TVA launched the largest nuclear power building program in the nation, with 17 plants under construction. Even after later scaling back its plans, TVA maintained one of the nation's principal nuclear construction programs.

As work accelerated, so did complaints about the quality of construction, and about possible safety problems. Constructing a nuclear plant requires highly-trained craftsmen, and insiders say it was difficult to find enough people with the right skills.

NRC, which has only five investigators in TVA's region of the country, was unable to handle all the accusations of safety problems.

Meanwhile, in 1985 TVA set up its own inspector-general office to probe allegations about safety and other matters.

Anxious to get on top of the problems, NRC signed a memorandum of understanding with TVA's inspector general on Jan. 11, 1991. The purpose was to share responsibility when NRC's staff was overwhelmed with cases. Williams says four things went wrong.

First, despite a provision that requires NRC to first obtain permission to name a whistle-blower to TVA, at least 11 whistle-blowers were revealed.

The NRC official responsible for contacts with TVA told Williams that, until one year ago, he did not realize that the names had to be confidential.

Second, NRC failed to regularly review matters turned over to TVA, and information developed by TVA investigators was not routinely used for enforcement.

Third, NRC sometimes misled whistle-blowers by failing to explain the difference between ``identity protection'' and ``confidentiality.'' The latter offers more protection for those worried about retribution.

Fourth, NRC failed in some early instances to protect whistle-blowers' identity when faced with Freedom of Information Act requests, contrary to general NRC practice.

Despite his criticism of NRC, Mr. Comley praises Williams: ``I'm glad to see that there's somebody in Washington listening to the people of this country and listening to these courageous [whistle-blowers]. I have to commend Mr. Williams and his staff on challenging the agency and holding them accountable.''

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