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San Onofre nuclear employees lack state worker shield

One of the nuclear industry's worst safety offenders is on the hook for more than just hazardous conditions at the facility. New information about the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station reveals that whistleblowers had attempted to reveal dangerous safety concerns at the facility as early as 2010. Their voices were not heard, though, because they feared retaliation.

The reason those employees were afraid is that San Onofre sits on federal land that is not subject to California's whistleblower-protection laws, which are among the strongest in the nation.

Instead, the workers remained silent, enduring inexcusably hazardous conditions because of a legal loophole, according to professionals. The facility was closed earlier this year because of a design flaw that caused excessive wear on a critical component. A break in one of the poorly designed systems could cause a radiation leak. That fact brought nuclear safety to the forefront of the Californian consciousness yet again.

In 2010, the plant had about 10 times the number of safety and health complaints as similar plants in other parts of the country. Employees contend that they were fired because they dared to come forward with safety concerns, and they were left without recourse because San Onofre sits on federal ground.

Attorneys say that although workers still enjoy the protection of federal whistleblower laws, the larger government entities generally work slower than less cumbersome state authorities. Federal laws still have safeguards against retaliation, but they are not enacted with such speed. As a result, it can take a long time to get to the bottom of a health and safety claim. This is particularly true in California, which operates its own occupational safety and health program apart from federal authorities.

Despite some modest efforts to fix safety concerns at the facility, San Onofre remains one of the most often-cited plants in the nation, tied with another plant for the highest number of employee complaints filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Source: KPBS, "San Onofre workers lack state whistleblower protections," Amita Sharma, June 28, 2012

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