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Bill in U.S. Senate Would Protect Whistleblowers at Nuclear Sites

A new Senate bill is aimed at protecting whistleblowers at nuclear facilities such as the Hanford Site, above. (U.S. Department of Energy)
A new Senate bill is aimed at protecting whistleblowers at nuclear facilities such as the Hanford Site, above. (U.S. Department of Energy)
September 28, 2016

SEATTLE - A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate would further protect whistleblowers at nuclear sites.

Senate Bill 3394 is designed to level the playing field in cases where employees bring forward safety concerns, and even expands the definition of whistleblower to include anyone who reports on fraud, waste or abuse.

Jeff Sprung, a lawyer in Seattle who specializes in representing whistleblowers, said the bill has particular significance in Washington state because of the Hanford Site, a contaminated nuclear reservation currently being cleaned up. Sprung said employees have voiced their concerns about the cleanup.

"There has been a series of employees who have come forward to complain about particular problems with the cleanup at Hanford, and they've charged that they've been retaliated against," he said. "This bill is designed to make sure that those people can come forward and give you and me, the public, information about what's really going on."

Hanford is the country's largest radioactive waste dump. In 2013, whistleblower Walt Tamosaitis spoke out about outdated storage tanks for nuclear waste that were leaking into the ground and was fired. Tamosaitis settled a case with the Department of Energy last year over the retaliatory action.

The bill, written by three Democratic senators, would cut delays in whistleblower cases. If someone comes forward and nothing is done after six months, he or she can request a hearing with the U.S. Department of Labor. After a year of no action, he or she can bring the case in front of a federal court.

As it stands now, Sprung said, the public is paying to defend private contractors against people reporting safety concerns. This bill could change that, he said, putting contractors on the hook for legal costs "so that taxpayers aren't footing the bill to defend cases brought by whistleblowers who are saying. 'Look, we've been retaliated against for trying to tell the public about what's really going on.' "

The Government Accountability Office released a report this summer that said the Department of Energy seldom holds contractors accountable for unlawful retaliation against whistleblowers, and only two violation notices have been issued by the department in the past two decades.

A summary of the bill is online at wyden.senate.gov.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA