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California whistleblowers watching nuclear power plant firings

California employees whose job involves helping to ensure safety in a potentially dangerous environment may find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. If they don't report safety issues, they aren't doing their jobs. However, if they do, some employers may retaliate against them in various ways, including termination.

Four months after a safety official at the Hanford Nuclear Power Reservation was fired, allegedly for going public about problems with the U.S. Department of Energy plant, another employee has lost her job. The woman, who managed Environmental and Nuclear Safety at the southeastern Washington State plant, says that she was fired in retaliation for speaking out about the risks posed by the plant.

Both whistleblowers say that among the most disturbing safety concerns in the treatment facility is a flaw in the design that could cause a hydrogen explosion and perhaps even a nuclear chain reaction. The facility contains 53 million gallons of nuclear waste. Reportedly, radioactive material has leaked from a number of the 177 underground tanks containing that waste and gone into the ground.

The plant is in the midst of changes to improve safety that are expected to run as much as $13 billion. The whistleblower who was just fired worked for a subcontractor involved in the clean-up efforts.

Back in October when her colleague was fired, the woman expressed concerns in the media that the firing "heightened my sense of awareness that I was probably next." Her employer, URS, claims that her recent termination was "due to issues unrelated to her purported concerns." She says, however, that the only reason she was given for her dismissal was "unprofessional conduct," with no documentation or further explanation.

The whistleblower says she feels that the terminations are meant to send a message to other safety officials working at the facility. She says some have told her that they are, in her words, "afraid of getting fired for doing their job."

Employees should be able to voice concerns about dangerous or illegal activities they witness or are aware of in their workplace without being harassed or fired in retaliation. That's why there are whistleblower protection laws. They can and should take legal action against their employer to gain their jobs back and get compensation for damages such as lost wages caused by a wrongful termination.

Source: CBS News, "Second whistleblower Donna Busche fired at troubled Wash. State Hanford nuke plant" No author given, Feb. 19, 2014

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