The Industry Thinks You Can't Handle the Truth

by Maggie Gundersen

When a poor safety culture [to use nukespeak nomenclature] impacts nuclear power plant operations, what does that mean for plant employees, nearby communities, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)?

A survey of NRC employees shows that 39% are afraid of raising safety issues due to possible retaliation from supervisors. 75% of employees who did raise a safety concern reported negative responses like lower performance reviews and being excluded from work activities. How is the NRC supposed to be a nuclear watchdog if its employees are afraid to mention possibly serious safety violations to their superiors? This is a toxic safety culture with ramifications reaching far outside the NRC offices.

Read the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists February 23, 2017 opinion piece, entitled Whistleblowers and the NRC: Do as I say, not as I don’t, to see the seriousness of the NRC attitude toward atomic risk criticism within its own ranks, and its ongoing mistreatment of whistleblowers in general. Penned by Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), this opinion piece is also a great lead-in to the latest UCS analytical report entitled The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Safety Culture: Do As I Say, Not As I Do issued in February 2017.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for assessing atomic power reactor risk and making sure that the corporations LLCs (independent limited liability corporations) and the public utilities operating the plants follow NRC regulations and more importantly the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that is the final legal authority for federal agencies. Unfortunately, the real problem that exists is that NRC regulations are not adequately or equally enforced. And most importantly, oftentimes the NRC itself not only ignores its own regulations, but also conveniently forgets to adhere to the Code of Federal Regulations that are the backbone of all nuclear power plant licenses and the regulations for the entire atomic power industry.

Let’s hear directly from the UCS report:

Workers at nuclear power plants are the front line of nuclear safety, and the ones most likely to detect safety problems when they arise. However, the safety of our nation’s nuclear power plants suffers if workers are ignored or even retaliated against. Indeed, several nuclear plants have experienced such a chilled work environment and have had severe safety problems for just these reasons…

…But it is not just nuclear plants that must maintain a positive safety culture—the NRC must, too. If plant workers are nuclear safety’s front line, the NRC’s inspectors and reviewers are the best insurance that the front line is fully staffed and reliable. NRC’s workers must be confident that they can report any problems they observe without reprisal and that the NRC will address them. However, there are ample signs that the NRC itself has safety culture problems.

I am a paralegal and Fairewinds Associates, the paralegal and expert witness testimony firm I founded, specializes in analyzing atomic power risk and how the NRC and other agencies monitor, enforce, and characterize the corporate operations and mechanical condition of each reactor, as well as the safety ethic of corporate employees. Again and again, we find corporations repeatedly ignoring the law and harassing employees who try to follow regulations. Dave Lochbaum from UCS, Fairewinds chief engineer Arnie Gundersen, and I have all been whistleblowers. Each of us worked to protect other employees and/or nearby communities from safety violations of regulations promulgated by the NRC itself or established in underlying nuclear federal law from the inception of the atomic power industry by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 10 that regulates the entire nuclear industry.

There is not a day that goes by that I or members of the Fairewinds Crew are not alerted to atomic power risk issues by colleagues around the world or the whistleblowers that contact us here in the U.S. and from overseas.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, was an American naval officer and engineer who developed the world’s first nuclear-powered engines and the first atomic-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, launched in 1954.

To quote PBS, which produced a documentary about Admiral Rickover entitled Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power that premiered Tuesday, December 9, 2014: “Combative, provocative and searingly blunt, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover was a flamboyant maverick, a unique American hero. Unafraid to buck the system, he alienated Navy brass, yet inspired the men under him. When few thought it possible, then-Captain Rickover undertook a quest to harness the fearsome power of the atom to drive the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, whose trip under the polar ice pack was one of the great adventure stories of the 1950s. Later, Rickover built the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.”

Many media reports during his lifetime and historical reports currently credit Rickover as the father of nuclear power, and assumed he strongly supported the civilian nuclear power process he created.  From working inside the atomic power industry and on several legal cases involving his opinion and testimonies, I have known the Admiral’s overall disdain of the nuclear power industry. His 1982 testimony to Congress says it best:

“I'll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn't have any life — fish or anything. Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet—and probably in the entire system—reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin... Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible... Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it... I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. Have I given you an answer to your question?” [On the hazards of nuclear power. Testimony to Congress (28 January 1982); published in Economics of Defense Policy: Hearing before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., Pt. 1 (1982)]

Admiral Rickover died July 8, 1986 at 86-years-old in Arlington, Virginia following a stroke.

Because the long-term impact of radiation as opposed to other industries that impact human health, like salmonella outbreaks in the food industry, it can be much harder to connect the effects of radiation to their source. Since radiation leaks usually aren’t discovered for years and the cancers and other illnesses created by radioactive isotopes don’t show for anywhere from 5 to more than 30-years, radiation producers are most often not linked to subsequent illnesses and deaths. The atomic power industry is not making cotton candy or peanut butter, which by the way was produced in Georgia and sickened 714 people in 46 states killing 9 of them.

As Fukushima Daiichi keeps on giving the legacy of radioactive discharge throughout Japan and the northern hemisphere, it is time to recognize the whistleblowers in the U.S. and around the world, who try to keep the world’s existing atomic power reactors operating safely. These brave people cannot do their job if the regulators, like the NRC, are part of the problem from beginning to end!

Open your eyes and read the UCS report. Then, stay tuned to Fairewinds’ website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page. We will keep you informed!