US Nuke Plant Workers Suffer Reprisals For Whistleblowing
By Peter Eisler
WASHINGTON - In a remarkable, videotaped deposition to air Thursday in federal court, former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary says workers who expose flaws at nuclear weapons plants and labs regularly are harassed and undermined by their bosses.
There "has been a practice of repeated and long-term reprisal that visits (a whistle-blower) in the place he or she is most vulnerable" by "questioning the employee's competence," O'Leary testifies.
Federal law bars retaliation against whistle-blowers, and the Department of Energy and its contractors face a spate of suits alleging violations.
O'Leary's testimony, obtained by USA TODAY, has implications beyond the case for which it was given - a suit by Joseph Carson, a DOE safety inspector who says his career was ruined by raising concerns about the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons site in Tennessee.
O'Leary's testimony offers high-level corroboration for whistle-blowers' complaints.
"This takes the genie out of the bottle," says Robert Seldon, Carson's lawyer, of Project LAW, a group that represents whistle-blowers. "You've got a Cabinet secretary testifying under oath that the DOE . . . systematically violates the rights of its employees. This testimony could be used in every whistle-blower case against DOE."
It is rare for a former Cabinet secretary to testify against his or her own agency.
Carson says DOE managers cut his duties and ordered his transfer after he alleged, among other things, that a worker was crushed by an illegal hoist and a welder died unnecessarily in a fire.
The DOE says Carson is a disgruntled worker who was properly disciplined for violating reporting procedures and harassing colleagues.
O'Leary, Energy secretary from 1993-96, initiated reforms to protect whistle-blowers.
DOE officials say they've made great progress in addressing a culture of reprisal.
But O'Leary, in an interview, says problems remain. "These are important issues that deserve the light of day," she says of her testimony. "The old way, I suspect, is slipping back."

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