WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Federal regulators have ruled in favor of an engineer fired for reporting unsafe conditions created by a contractor at a nuclear power plant in eastern Kansas, his attorneys said Friday.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also found Enercon Services, of Kennesaw, Ga., terminated him in retaliation for alerting superiors to the safety issues and refusing to comply with a supervisor’s demand that he sign off on an engineering plan justifying unsafe remedial actions.
OSHA ordered the firm to reinstate the senior engineer at the Wolf Creek plant with back pay. The agency also told the engineering firm to pay him $50,650 in damages, plus his attorneys’ fees and costs, according to the OSHA letter released by his attorneys.
Enercon provides engineering and management services to several nuclear plants, including the Wolf Creek Generating Station, located 90 miles from Kansas City. The firm, which employs more than 1,200 people, did not return phone messages left at its Georgia headquarters or its Overland Park office. Wolf Creek also did not return messages seeking comment.
OSHA spokeswoman Rhonda Burke confirmed the letter but declined to comment until the agency gets notice that the parties received its findings.
The whistleblower told AP on Friday he felt he was acting as a “responsible individual.” He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear he would be unable to find work in the industry.
“It is important that when you work out in a nuclear plant and you have the issue of nuclear safety that you should be able to feel free to exercise your right if you see something that is wrong,” he said in an interview. “You should have freedom to go to supervisors or superiors and let them know what you have observed and not have any fear of retaliation.”
The dispute stems from a trench dug directly over piping that circulates water to cool the plant’s spent fuel pools and the heat exchangers and other components that cool the reactor. The trench work and a fence breached the required minimum soil coverage over the pipes, making them more prone to cracking or corrosion and exposing them to damage from flying tornado debris, he said.
The engineer said he refused to sign off on a plan to fill the trenches with concrete that a supervisor wanted because that would have made them vulnerable to breakage from seismic activity and the shifting ground. Those spent fuel pools generate heat and if you lose the ability to circulate water in and out of there the heat builds up in the fuel pool and you could “end up like the situation they had in Japan,” he said.
He also reported problems with a nearby fence and tracks showing heavy equipment that appeared to have driven over the area where the pipes were buried.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a May 3 letter said that while the nuclear plant failed to maintain the minimum coverage depth on the pipes, the plant had taken corrective actions and called it a violation of “minor significance” because the remaining backfill was sufficient to provide protection. The commission was unable to substantiate the concern that a crane drove over the ground where the pipe was located.
The agency also said the fencing issue was a minor violation, and it substantiated the concern that the excavation permit was issued without reviewing the site drawings.
Debra Katz, the Washington, D.C., attorney who represented the whistleblower, said the reason Congress set up the nuclear protection law — known as the Energy Reorganization Act — was to create an “an environment where nuclear workers , who are the eyes and ears of the public, can feel safe reporting nuclear safety violations without fear of retribution.” She said it was crucial that the Department of Labor enforce the laws so workers can have a place to file a complaint.
“Without that, it just creates a tremendously chilling environment where nuclear workers don’t feel comfortable coming forward — and that is very frightening for all of us, especially people who live anywhere near nuclear power plants,” Katz said.