San Onofre Has Lousy Safety Record, but Is Protected from Whistle-Blowers

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station


Whistle-blowers at the San Onofre Nuclear Plant, shut down in January after tubes that carry radioactive steam were found to be decaying, are more vulnerable than other state workers because the facility sits on land leased from the federal government.

San Onofre is owned primarily by Southern California Edison, a private company, but the land is leased from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base and that, according to the Los Angeles Times, limits the use of more expansive whistleblower state laws. The newspaper cited three cases where San Onofre employees took complaints about safety concerns to state court only to have them eventually tossed out because of the plant’s location.

One employee, Edward Bussey, sued Edison in state court for wrongful termination after being fired in 2006. He claimed the company fired him for complaining about safety issues; they maintained it was for falsifying radiation logs. The case ended up in federal court where it was thrown out because federal law doesn’t cover wrongful-termination claims.

“The average employee out there doesn't even know they're working on a federal enclave, and they don't realize that unlike the other Edison employees . . . people who work at San Onofre give up their state rights and a bunch of other rights working at that plant,” Bussey told the Times.

The National Whistleblowers Center notes that a number of states have enacted laws to protect whistleblowers, many of which have a longer statute of limitations and benefits not available under federal law. Attorney David J. Marshall, whose firm has represented nuclear whistle-blowers, said a lawsuit in state court is often the best option for plaintiffs because of larger damage awards and the chance at a jury trial rather than a hearing before an administrative law judge.

An argument could be made that San Onofre needs stronger whistle-blower accountability than most nuclear plants, not less. Two years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) criticized San Onofre for cultivating an atmosphere that discouraged the reporting of safety concerns. The NRC more recently reported that more allegations of reactor problems were received from on-site sources at San Onofre in 2009-11 than any other plant in the country. It is tied for the lead in 2012.

The human factor in maintaining nuclear plant safety cannot be discounted. An independent report just released by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission says the crisis in Japan last year was a “man-made disaster” that could have been prevented. It didn’t focus on whistle-blowers, but it did say that “effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.” The report blamed collusion between the company running the plant, the government and regulators who, when left to their own devices, “manipulated” the situation to protect themselves.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:   

San Onofre Whistle-Blowers Less Protected Than Others in California (by Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times)

“Shut Down San Onofre”: The New Front Line in the Fight Against Nuclear Power (by Jon Wiener, The Nation)

Inquiry Declares Fukushima Crisis a Man-Made Disaster (by Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times)

Complaints of Safety Problems at U.S. Nuclear Power Plants (pdf)

Reactor Allegations from On-Site Sources: January 2008 - May 2012 (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) (pdf)

San Onofre Nuclear Plant Problems Diagnosed, but List of Unknowns Remains (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

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