A US Department of Labor appeals panel has ruled that nuclear contracting giant Stone & Webster violated federal whistleblower law in 2004 when the company fired James Speegle, a foreman at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Florence, Alabama.

Speegle had been outspoken in raising safety concerns about serious problems with the protective coatings being used in the plant’s cooling systems. Improper coatings work in a nuclear plant can cause paint debris to clog emergency cooling pumps and prevent safe shutdown of the reactor during an accident.

Browns Ferry was shut down in 1985 due to safety problems. Speegle insisted that Stone & Webster, which was hurrying to complete work under an $800 million contract with TVA to restart Unit 1, was endangering the plant and surrounding communities by applying substandard coatings in critical areas of the cooling system. The company fired him two days after he reported this to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In a 16-page decision issued on 24 September, 2009 the DOL’s Administrative Review Board concluded that the company had fired Speegle in retaliation for raising his safety concerns and in violation of the whistleblower protections of the Energy Reorganization Act.

“I’m very happy to see justice prevail,” Speegle said after hearing of the decision. “It’s taken over five years to win this fight, but it’s worth it because we’ve shown nuclear plant workers that employers can’t get away with suppressing your right to speak out about safety issues.”

Speegle’s attorney agrees. “This is a victory for nuclear whistleblowers and a defeat for corporate greed,” said David J. Marshall of the Washington, D.C., law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks, who heads up Speegle’s legal team. “James Speegle refused to stand by quietly while Stone & Webster skimped on nuclear safety and put all of northern Alabama at risk.” Marshall pointed out that only a plant employee could have seen and reported this wrongdoing. “Nuclear workers are the eyes and ears of the public and must be protected when they blow the whistle on the type of ‘schedule and profits over safety’ mentality that Stone & Webster exhibited.”

TVA later made Stone & Webster re-do the coatings work Speegle complained about at its own expense. In late 2008, the company ended up paying some $6.2 million to settle a False Claims Act case with the US government, which had accused the company of widespread fraud on TVA in construction contracts at nuclear plants, including the one at Browns Ferry.

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