The Energy Department lets its private contractors police themselves, producing “chilled work environments” in which employees who find wrongdoing have no useful path for complaints
At laboratories and factories where American nuclear weapons are designed and built, and at the sites still being cleansed of the toxic wastes created by such work, contractor employees outnumber federal workers six to one. That makes them key sentinels when something goes awry, a circumstance that officials say explains why they get legal protections when whistleblowing.
That’s the theory. It turns out that the Energy Department has actually handed most of the oversight over these protections to the contractors themselves, robbing workers at key nuclear weapons sites of confidence that pointing out security and safety dangers or other mistakes won’t bring retaliation, according to an audit released by the Government Accountability Office on July 14.
The Energy Department’s decision to embrace contractor self-regulation of its whistleblowing protection system means in many cases that those overseeing it work for the contractors’ top lawyers, who must defend the contractor against employee claims of wrongdoing, or for those officials responsible for deciding about job cuts, the report disclosed.
At the Energy Department’s Hanford Nuclear Site, for example, a contractor employee reported that in the first iteration of one such survey, specific responses could be linked directly to those participating, and after revisions, the employee had heard managers “were pressuring employees to give favorable responses.” Many of the results were deleted before being analyzed, the employee said – part of a series of flaws that DOE overlooked.
The report disclosed that despite some highly-publicized instances of retaliation against whistleblowers in the nuclear weapons complex, and many public statements by DOE and contractors of support for transparency and technical dissent, DOE has only three times punished contractors who retaliated against whistleblowers in the last 20 years. One of those punishments was just a stern letter.
The problems run deeper than self-regulation, the report states. When contractor employees have brought concerns directly to the Energy Department, partly out of fear of retaliation by their bosses, the department has often referred those complaints back to the contractor, potentially jeopardizing the complainer’s anonymity or creating the appearance of “impaired independence” at DOE. And a program meant to adjudicate such issues within DOE is procedurally complex and sometimes too challenging for workers, the report said.
Sandra Hightower Black, who headed the employee concerns program at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, LLC, in Aiken, S.C. – a consortium of Fluor Corporation, Honeywell International Inc. and Newport News Nuclear Inc. – told the press conference that she repeatedly witnessed such acts of intimidation. She said one manager pressured an investigator in her office to flip a whistleblower complaint that had been substantiated and categorize it as unfounded. Another manager demanded the name of the “rat” in a whistleblower case.
To executives at the company, Black said, she eventually became “an employee advocate,” which they regarded as a liability. A 59-year-old single mother, Black trembled at the press conference behind dark-framed glasses, as she said she was eventually fired for doing what she thought she was supposed to do.
Black’s case is still pending. But the report said other contract employees at the Savannah River site told the auditors that a poor climate persisted there:
- “We were told that if you talk to DOE, you will not be considered part of the team.”
- “They will make an example of anyone who challenges them.”
- “Employees are very afraid to raise safety issues at the meetings because they will be terminated or embarrassed.”
- “They fired the [employee concerns program] Manager. What do you think they will do to me?”
A whistleblower from the Hanford site, Walter Tamosaitis, also appeared at the press conference. He’s an engineer who worked on the management team constructing the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant at Hanford, a project long plagued by delays and cost overruns. In 2010, he spoke up at a management meeting about his worries that the costly plant would be unsafe, and even provoke an unexpected nuclear chain reaction. Tamosaitis almost immediately was kicked off the project and spent the next 18 months in a windowless basement office, before finally being fired.