OSHA slaps Wolf Creek power plant contractor for firing a whistleblower

An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has determined that a contractor at the Wolf Creek Generating Station wrongfully fired an engineer who reported safety violations.

An OSHA letter sent last week said Enercon Services Inc. violated the Energy Reoganization Act, a federal law that prohibits retaliation against a nuclear power plant employee or contractor who raises safety concerns.

Enercon provides engineering and management services to nuclear plants, including the Wolf Creek reactor at Burlington, Kan.

The engineer, who requested anonymity because he fears future industry retaliation, was awarded back pay, benefits and compensatory damages, and the plant was ordered to reinstate him.

An Enercon official provided a written response from the company which said its practice is to “encourage and protect employees who report safety concerns.”

The statement said Enercon “objects to, and is appealing, the finding of reasonable cause issued by OSHA after its preliminary review,” and it welcomes “a full hearing to establish that the termination was for legitimate business reasons, and not for reporting safety concerns.”

The company has 30 days from receipt of the letter to request a hearing before an administrative law judge.

According to the OSHA investigation, the engineer was terminated in January 2012, soon after he pointed out to supervisors that required soil coverage for buried pipes did not meet federal safety requirements. The pipes circulate water needed to cool the plant’s heat exchangers and other components.

Investigators also noted that the engineer had declined to write a report that would have justified the use of inadequate backfill material above the buried pipes.

“Whistleblowers in the nuclear power industry play a vital role in protecting the public against nuclear disasters,” said Debra Katz, an attorney at Katz, Marshall & Banks, who represented the fired engineer. “When they risk their careers to report nuclear safety concerns and suffer retaliation from their employers, it is critical that they have a strong agency to turn to that will enforce whistleblower protection laws and hold the employer accountable.”

Separately, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported last month that Enercon had circumvented approval processes and safety protocols in regard to excavation near the Wolf Creek water piping system.

The NRC has classified Wolf Creek as a “degraded cornerstone” plant, which summons the highest level of NRC oversight. Wolf Creek is among four active nuclear reactors in the U.S. that share that poor rating.

Another report, issued in March by the Union for Concerned Scientists, detailed a series of “near miss” problems at the Wolf Creek plant and noted the heightened NRC scrutiny.

OSHA said its interviews with witnesses determined that the fired whistleblower was a senior engineer who correctly reported the inadequate soil covering to supervisors. Those interviewed said the fired engineer was a safety-conscious hard worker and good team member.

Enercon’s personnel form said the whistleblower was fired because “employee’s performance was inadequate leading to unacceptable results.”

OSHA investigators found that “the evidence shows that the errors that ultimately occurred in the field were not (the whistleblower’s) fault.”

The OSHA report also noted that the whistleblower’s project manager and two other superintendents were fired in connection with the faulty pipe-covering work.