Check out Wikipedia’s list of nuclear whistleblowers and you’ll find an honor roll of nuclear industry insiders – plant workers, scientists, chemists, engineers, laboratory workers, among others – who raised concerns out about the risks to public safety from nuclear power.
For speaking out, they were met with retaliation and harassment, on the job and off. They were spied upon, threatened, and in the 1974 case of Kerr-McGee plutonium worker Karen Silkwood, killed.
James P. Speegle, a former foreman and painter at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala., raised concerns about plant safety and was fired in 2004. Speegle went to court, and in September the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled against his former employer, the Shaw Group, a global engineering and construction company that provides services to more than 30 nuclear plants across the U.S.
The NRC’s order followed a ruling by the U.S. Department of Labor in September 2009 that found the Shaw Group had violated federal whistleblower protection law when it fired Speegle in May 2004. The Shaw Group is appealing the labor department ruling, but settled separately with the NRC and agreed to improve how it responds to workers’ safety complaints in its nuclear operations.
“I never, never expected to be fired for filing a complaint of this magnitude,” Speegle says. At the time he was working on a $1.8 billion project to restart the Browns Ferry Unit One reactor, which was shut down following a fire in 1975.
Speegle was the foreman of a crew of painters applying protective coatings inside the plant’s cooling systems. He made repeated complaints to his supervisor that inexperienced painters were improperly applying paint that could eventually clog emergency cooling pumps, which would in turn make it impossible to safely shut down the reactor in case of an accident.
Stone & Webster, the Shaw Group subsidiary that held an $800 million contract on the project, was rushing to get the job done, according to Speegle. When his supervisor took no action, he went to the NRC and filed a complaint. He was fired three days later.
“I spoke out because I was afraid of what could happen. The company was willing to take a risk I wasn’t willing to take,” Speegle says. “Chernobyl is a fine example – it overheated and they couldn’t cool it down,” a reference to the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
“The utilities are very reluctant to heed the safety concerns of a worker because, in order to address them, production may have to be interrupted and a reactor may have to be shut down,” says David J. Marshall, Speegle’s lawyer. “And that can be hundreds of thousands of dollars – or even millions – in revenues.”
Stone & Webster was subsequently removed from the Browns Ferry project and the substandard work that Speegle reported was redone. In January 2009, Stone & Webster paid $6.2 million to settle a False Claims Act case related to work done at TVA nuclear plants in Alabama and Tennessee.
Marshall said the NRC’s order should make it easier for Shaw’s workers to report nuclear safety issues and noted the company is required to set up a high-level management committee to review all serious disciplinary actions at its nuclear divisions. “The order is focused specifically on Stone and Webster, which has a history of violating whistleblowers’ rights,” he says.
Final settlement in Speegle’s case is pending. He is seeking back pay, compensatory damages, reinstatement and attorney fees from the company.
“I went from earning $1,500 a week to collecting unemployment insurance. And then when I looked for a job, the red flags were up against me and I couldn’t get hired at other plants,” Speegle says. He says he’d speak up again. “Workers are the first line of defense and silence isn’t safe for anybody.”