Nuclear Employee Safety Concerns

Allegation System Offers Better Protection, but Important Issues Remain Gao ID: HEHS-97-51 March 31, 1997

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is directly responsible for monitoring more than 100 nuclear power plants, as well as 6,000 individuals and organizations licensed to possess and use nuclear materials and wastes, it is physically impossible for NRC to detect all health and safety hazards. As a result, it is critical that nuclear plant employees feel free to raise health and safety concerns without fear of retribution. Federal laws prohibit retaliation by power plant operators against whistleblowers who report health or safety issues. This report (1) describes how federal laws and regulations protect nuclear power industry employers from discrimination because they raised health and safety concerns and (2) determines the implementation status of recommendations made in recent NRC and Labor Department internal reviews and audits of the system for protecting workers and assesses the resulting changes to the system.

GAO noted that: (1) NRC has overall responsibility for ensuring that the nuclear plants it licenses are operated safely, and the Department of Labor also plays a role in the system that protects industry employees against discrimination for raising health and safety concerns; (2) the Atomic Energy Act, as amended, gives NRC responsibility for taking action against the employers it licenses when they are found to have discriminated against individual employees; (3) NRC can investigate when a harassment and intimidation allegation is filed with NRC or when it receives a copy of a discrimination complaint filed with Labor; (4) NRC's Office of Enforcement may use the results of the NRC investigation or a decision from Labor to support enforcement action; (5) in addition, the Energy Reorganization Act, as amended, authorizes the Secretary of Labor to order employers to make restitution to the victims of such discrimination; (6) restitution can include such actions as reinstatement to a former position, reimbursement of all expenses related to the complaint, and removal from personnel files of any adverse references to complaint activities; (7) concerns raised by employees about a lack of protection under the existing process led to studies begun by NRC and Labor in 1992; (8) these concerns included the inordinate amount of time it took Labor to act on some discrimination complaints and NRC's lack of involvement in cases during Labor's decision process; (9) in response to recommendations in reports from these groups, both NRC and Labor have taken actions intended to improve the system for protecting employees; (10) for example, NRC has established a senior position to centrally coordinate and oversee all phases of allegation management, and it has taken other actions to improve overall management of the system, such as establishing procedures to improve communication and feedback among employees, NRC, and licensees; (11) it has also increased its involvement in allegation cases through several actions, including investigating a greater number of allegations; (12) while NRC and Labor have been responsive to these recommendations, other recommendations, which could be implemented through administrative procedural changes and would further improve the system, still need to be addressed; (13) in addition, NRC and Labor have yet to complete action on recommendations requiring statutory and regulatory changes; and (14) these include recommendations to reduce the financial burden on workers with cases pending and to increase the dollar amount of civil penalties.


Our recommendations from this work are listed below with a Contact for more information. Status will change from "In process" to "Open," "Closed - implemented," or "Closed - not implemented" based on our follow up work.

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