GAO report criticizes Energy Department’s handling of whistleblower complaints

Savannah River Site in South Carolina
Savannah River Site in South Carolina

The Department of Energy’s nuclear program seldom holds its civilian contractors accountable for unlawful retaliation against whistleblowers, according to a draft Government Accountability Office report obtained by McClatchy.

The widely critical report found the DOE has taken little or no action against contractors responsible for creating chilled work environments at nuclear sites across the country and has yet to write effective regulations for doing so.

Only two violation notices have been issued in the past 20 years, the report notes. And employees who seek help for retaliation can be thwarted by a whistleblower protection program that’s hard to navigate without legal help, the report says.

The DOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report will be released at a news conference Thursday held by three Democratic senators who requested the investigation in March 2014: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.

The senators initially had asked the GAO to get to the bottom of persistent incidents of retaliation against whistleblowers reported at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state. The scope of the GAO’s review soon broadened to the handling of 87 contractor employee complaint files at 10 of the DOE’s largest nuclear facilities, including Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.

Unlike many lawyers, Bob Warren agreed to represent sick workers at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The pay has been low, but Warren has for 13 years handled their cases in hopes of gaining compensation from the federal government. He's

Two whistleblowers also will be in attendance at Thursday’s news conference. Walt Tamosaitis, who was fired after raising safety concerns about the handling of radioactive waste at Hanford Reservation in Washington state, and Sandra Black, a contractor employee at DOE’s Savannah River Site.

Hanford subcontractor URS settled a lawsuit Tamosaitis had brought for $4.1 million after he was removed as manager of research and technology at a waste vitrification plant.

Tom Carpenter, who heads the public interest group Hanford Challenge, said the GAO report verified problems identified at the site for years.

“The GAO report validates past findings of DOE’s utter failure to establish a safe environment for employees in their nuclear facilities to raise concerns, or to hold contractors (or itself) accountable for findings of reprisals against contractors – despite having the tools to do so,’’ Carpenter said Wednesday.

He called on Congress to strengthen whistleblower protection laws. Among those changes should be punitive damages against contractors to deter reprisals against whistleblowers, he said.

Ralph Stanton and 15 other nuclear workers were exposed to airborne plutonium oxide in an accident at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2011. He is one of more than 186,000 nuclear workers who have been exposed to recordable levels of radiation on

Investigators say in the GAO report that Black was fired allegedly for cooperating with the agency, a claim Black made in a federal whistleblower complaint against site contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.

Black, of Martinez, Ga., worked at the Savannah River Site as head of the employee concerns program. Her job required her to evaluate concerns from contract workers about unsafe, illegal or wasteful practices. The program was supposed to protect employees who raised such questions.

But after SRNS became site contractor in 2008, Black said, she was pressured by her superiors to alter or close some investigative reports. She also was pressured to disclose the identities of employees who brought up questions, Black said.

In one instance, a senior SRNS official told her he wanted to know the name of the “rat’’ who’d prompted an investigation of hazardous gas cylinder releases, but Black refused. She said it was vital to maintain a whistleblower’s confidentiality.

Black said she was fired in January 2015, however, after she talked with the GAO. Even though Black had never been disciplined in three decades of working at SRS, human resource representatives told her she was being fired for an unsatisfactory job performance, her labor department complaint says.

She told McClatchy last winter that the firing had been emotionally difficult and made it nearly impossible for her to find another job.

“I’m still very much traumatized and in shock about it,’’ Black told McClatchy in February. “I had no forewarning.’’

A spokeswoman for SRNS was not available Wednesday to respond to the GAO report.

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