Retaliation Laws and Cash Rewards for Nuclear Industry Whistleblowers
Although 34 nuclear reactors have been decommissioned in recent years, the nuclear industry is alive and well in the United States. After a hiatus of over two decades, two new reactors are being built in Georgia. The federal government still maintains an active nuclear research and weapons program and is also responsible for storing the tons of nuclear waste from past and present power plants.
We like to believe that our nuclear programs are safe, secure and being operated efficiently but often that is not the case. Many nuclear industry whistleblowers are reluctant to step forward and report problems. They worry about retaliation and often don’t know that cash rewards may be available for reporting certain improper conduct.
In this post we will first survey the current law applicable to nuclear industry whistleblowers and then examine several real live cases and the results.
What Laws Protect Nuclear Industry Whistleblowers?
Whistleblowers in the nuclear energy and nuclear weapons industries are protected under both the federal False Claims Act and section 211 of the Energy Reorganization Act. In many states, whistleblowers also enjoy state law protections.
Section 211 of the Energy Reorganization Act
(a) Discrimination against employee.
(1) No employer may discharge any employee or otherwise discriminate against any employee with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because the employee (or person acting pursuant to a request of the employee)
- notified his employer of an alleged violation of this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2011 et seq.);
(B) refused to engage in any practice made unlawful by this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, if the employee has identified the alleged illegality to the employer;
(C) testified before Congress or at any Federal or State proceeding regarding any provision (or proposed provision) of this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954;
(D) commenced, caused to be commenced, or is about to commence or cause to be commenced a proceeding under this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, or a proceeding for the administration or enforcement of any requirement imposed under this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended;
(E) testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding;
(F) assisted or participated or is about to assist or participate in any manner in such a proceeding or in any other manner in such a proceeding or in any other action to carry out the purposes of this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended.
(2) For purposes of this section, the term”employer” includes
(A) a licensee of the Commission or of an agreement State under section 274 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2021);
(B) an applicant for a license from the Commission or such an agreement State;
(C) a contractor or subcontractor of such a licensee or applicant;
(D) a contractor or subcontractor of the Department of Energy that is indemnified by the Department under section 170 d. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2210(d)), but such term shall not include any contractor or subcontractor covered by Executive Order No. 12344;
(E) a contractor or subcontractor of the Commission;
(F) the Commission; and
(G) the Department of Energy.
As drafted, this provision protects both government workers working for the NRC or Department of Energy andlicensed contractors.
The anti-retaliation provisions of the False Claims Act cover anyone reporting fraud involving federal dollars or programs.
Who Can File a Complaint?
Anyone who believes he or she has suffered retaliation for “blowing the whistle” on a nuclear safety problem or fraud on the government can file a complaint.
What is Illegal Retaliation?
Retaliation is any adverse change to the whistleblower’s conditions of employment. In addition to the obvious termination or firing, illegal discrimination and retaliation can include many other employment events. Examples include demotions, pay decreases, suspensions, poor work assignments and blacklisting.
How Do I File a Complaint?
Claims under the Energy Reorganization Act These laws are handled administratively by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Complaints are filed with the local OSHA Office of the DOL or OSHA headquarters in Washington D.C. Complaints are initially heard by an administrative law judge. If not resolved administratively there is a right to a court appeal.
False Claims Act retaliation complaints are filed in court. Although the available damages are greater in a whistleblower False Claims Act case, these cases may take longer to resolve since they are often stayed while the government decides whether or not it wishes to intervene in the underlying fraud complaint.
What Are the Statutes Of Limitations for Retaliation Claims?
A nuclear industry employee filing a complaint under the Energy Reorganization Act must file within 180 days. Nuclear industry whistleblowers seeking damages for a claim of retaliation under the False Claims Act have more time to file.
Can I Obtain a Reward for My Information?
The False Claims Act pays whistleblowers awards of between 15% and 30% of whatever the government collects from wrongdoers. Multi-million dollar awards are common.
To receive a reward, one must have inside information about fraud involving government funds. Many states also have their own state False Claims Act law.
Examples of cases where a nuclear industry whistleblower could receive a reward include
- Billing the DOE or other agency for services not performed
- False billing of a state operated nuclear plant (in states with a state False Claims Act)
- False charges for cleaning up nuclear waste
- Falsely using a small business or disadvantaged business enterprise designation in order to qualify for set aside contracts
To qualify for the reward, you must file a sealed (secret) complaint in federal court. The law requires that your information be inside (not within the public domain). You must also generally be the first to file your complaint.
Where Do I File?
The Atomic Energy Act was recently amended to permit workers to file claims in federal court if the OSHA fails to issue a final decision within 12 months.
False Claims Act cases are filed under seal in any location where either of the parties have a physical presence.
What Remedies Are Available to Employees Suffering from Retaliation?
Under the False Claims Act, whistleblowers suffering retaliation are entitled to back pay, double pay, forward pay, consequential damages, costs of suit and legal fees.
Under the Energy Reorganization Act whistleblower law, aggrieved workers are entitled:
- Back pay with interest
- Restoration of seniority/sick leave, etc.
- Emotional distress damages
- Legal fees and costs of suit
Why Should I Become a Whistleblower?
Whistleblowers have become the new American heroes. After standing back and watching wrongdoing for so many years, many Americans are now taking a stand. Congress recognized the need to encourage more concerned workers to step forward by passing strong protections for nuclear industry whistleblowers.
If federal or state funds are involved (some nuclear generating plants are government owned such as the TVA or owned by state / public utility companies), huge rewards may also be available.
Corporate greed and corruption are not okay. Whether through higher utility bills or higher taxes, all of us pay when someone tries to cheat the system.
When the fraud involves poor quality controls, the public may even be in danger. And if your work involves nuclear weapons, national security can be implicated.
If you have information about fraud involving federal spending (tax dollars) or fraud on the DOE or NRC, call us right away. We primarily take False Claims Act cases but are happy to listen and help you determine if you have a case. We never charge a fee unless we collect money for you.
Not sure you have a case? We still would like to hear from you. There is no obligation and all inquiries are protected by the attorney –client privilege meaning the call is completely confidential. We can be reached online, by email or by phone at 202-800-9791. Cases accepted nationwide.
Recent Nuclear Industry Whistleblower Stories
Yesterday we published a very interesting piece on our WhistleblowerTV Lawyer blog. Scroll down to Episode Five once you click on the link. In that episode, we discussed how top-secret information about nuclear weapons could have fallen into the wrong hands but for two brave whistleblowers.
Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is where the government conducts much of its nuclear research. In fact, it was where the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan during the closing days of World War II were developed.
Although today Los Alamos is still a federal facility, much of the work is contracted out to vendors. One of those vendors was the University of California which then had a $2 billion exclusive contract with the government.
After a hard drive containing highly classified information went missing from the Lab, Congress required new security measures be put in place.Two former police officers were hired to run internal security at the facility. What they found was shocking.
The Los Alamos campus was completely open with little security. Anyone could walk in or out. Employees were taking advantage of this by stealing equipment from the lab, including TVs, computers, cameras and refrigerators. One employee even managed to walk away with an industrial water tank. Some of these employees were even charging personal items at local stores to the government.
When the two newly hired security officials reported their findings, they were told to keep quiet. When they continued to complain, they were let go.
Both were successful in bringing a whistleblower retaliation action against the University of California. The university also lost its exclusive contract with the government.
Multi-Million Whistleblower Reward for Workers at Hanford Site
Gary Brunson, Donna Busche and Walter Tamosaitis all worked with the Hanford Site, a facility near Richland, Washington where nuclear waste and spent fuel rods are sent for disposal. It is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.
After repeatedly complaining of illegal misconduct at the facility and being ignored, the three stepped forward and filed their complaints formally under the False Claims Act.
Between the three, they claimed Bechtel National Inc., Bechtel Corp., URS Corp. and URS Energy and Construction Inc. (now known as AECOM Energy and Construction Inc.) made false claims to the government by charging DOE for “deficient nuclear quality materials, services, and testing”. Later the government would claim that Bechtel companies illegally used federal contract funds to pay for a comprehensive, multi-year lobbying campaign of Congress and other federal officials for continued funding at the site.
In other words, private companies used our tax dollars to lobby Congress for even more of our tax dollars!
The companies paid a combined total of $125 million in fines and penalties. They were allowed to settle without any admission of wrongdoing.
In announcing the settlement, a senior Justice Department official said, “The money allocated by Congress for the Waste Treatment Plant is intended to fund the Department of Energy’s important mission to clean up the contaminated Hanford nuclear site, and this mission is undermined if funds are wasted on goods or services that are not nuclear compliant or to further lobbying activities.”
The Justice Department did not make public the whistleblower portion of the recovery. Typically, in a case this size the recovery would be between $20,000,000.00 and $25,000,000.00. Not a bad payday for doing the right thing.
Seeking Nuclear Industry Whistleblowers
Once again, if you have information about fraud involving federal spending (tax dollars) or fraud on the Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Los Alamos, Hanford, a TVA nuclear facility or any publicly owned nuclear facility, call us right away. You may be entitled to a substantial cash reward and you are helping protect taxpayers and fight fraud.
There is no obligation and all inquiries are protected by the attorney – client privilege meaning the call is completely confidential. We never charge a fee unless we recovery money for you. Contact us online, by email or by phone at 202-800-9791. Cases accepted nationwide.