Nuclear Power Safety

Industry Concerns With Federal Whistleblower Protection System Gao ID: HEHS-97-162 September 2, 1997

Few issues have so caught the attention of nuclear industry regulators and industry officials as the operation of the federal system to protect employees who raise safety concerns. The actions that a utility takes in response to employee concerns affect its reputation with regulators, which, in turn, influence the amount of trust that regulators afford the utility when employees make allegations against it. This is especially true for a utility that is a regulated organization licensed to operate a nuclear reactor--a "licensee." Members of Congress have raised concerns that the law does not adequately protect nuclear power industry workers who raise health and safety issues. Because of the tension between providing adequate protections for whistleblowers and not burdening industry with an overly intrusive system, this report provides the views of nuclear industry officials on the following: (1) how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Labor Department have implemented federal processes to protect whistleblowers, (2) whether Labor's ruling on protected activities have affected industry's ability to manage its workforce and comply with NRC regulations, and (3) whether abuse of the federal whistleblower protection system exists.

GAO noted that: (1) while industry officials have no disagreement with the policy underlying the federal whistleblower protection system, some say that the current NRC and Labor processes take too long to complete, are redundant, consume large amounts of managers' time and other resources, interfere with effective management, and are often used to resolve issues only marginally related to nuclear safety; (2) GAO's March 1997 report noted that many of these issues have previously been raised and that corrective actions are under way to improve several of these areas; (3) however, some industry officials believe that few of these actions will help solve the problems that they have with the system; (4) these officials also say that some of Labor's rulings during the 1990s broadened whistleblower protections and undermined industry's confidence in the system's ability to resolve issues fairly for employers; (5) abuse of the whistleblower protection system, officials claim, takes the form of employees'; (a) making discrimination allegations, some of which are completely frivolous, and using their "protected" status to insulate themselves from personnel actions, such as negative performance evaluations or reassignments; or (b) threatening to file discrimination allegations to avoid or delay layoffs, negotiate buyouts, or receive other financial settlements; (7) however, while they are concerned about the burdensome and costly processes that result from such abuse, neither the industry officials GAO interviewed nor the Nuclear Energy Institute had information on the extent of such abuse or believe that such data could be collected; (8) industry officials' suggestions to improve whistleblower protection emphasized holding in abeyance NRC action to investigate or engage in enforcement action based on whistleblower claims until Labor has completed its investigations and issued a final ruling; (9) however, as a result of their perceptions about the processes and Labor's rulings, as well as their view that little is likely to change in their favor, industry officials say they become increasingly inclined to avoid the federal system and settle complaints before the issues are made known outside the plant or to settle the cases early in the federal whistleblower protection processes; (10) officials from NRC and Labor, however, did not agree with these industry comments and viewed their agencies as acting appropriately and within their authority; and (11) neither agency accepted the assertion by some industry officials that the whistleblower protection system is plagued by abuse.

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