Investigators Cite Deals To Silence Critics At Nuclear Plants
May. 02, 1989
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Senate panel said Tuesday it uncovered at least two ''silence-for-money'' deals in which Texas nuclear plant workers who raised safety concerns were paid for agreeing not to testify at licensing hearings.
The Senate subcommittee on nuclear regulation also is investigating at least one other secret deal between a nuclear plant contractor and an employee in order to determine the frequency and legality of such practices, panel sources said.
Sen. John Breaux, the subcommittee chairman, said such arrangements hold frightening implications for nuclear safety.
''It turns the licensing process into a sham if witnesses can be paid money to withhold their testimony,'' he said.
The panel has scheduled a hearing Thursday to hear from parties to one of the Texas agreements, and from Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Lando W. Zech Jr., who was not involved in the deals. Breaux has blasted Zech and other NRC commissioners for not condemning the deals.
The commission has not commented publicly on the issue, but in private notices to nuclear plant operators last week it said the operators could not make deals with employees that in any way restrict their ability to raise safety issues with the NRC.
''Examples of restrictive clauses include but are not limited to prohibiting or in any way limiting an employee, or an attorney for such employee, from coming to and providing safety information to an NRC staff member,'' said the notice, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
The notice, which also was sent to nuclear plant vendors, was signed by Victor Stello Jr., the commision's executive director for operations. He instructed the companies to report any such restrictions to the NRC by July 31.
Subcommittee sources, speaking on condition they not be identified further, said documents indicated Joseph J. Macktal, a former electrical foreman at the Comanche Peak nuclear station, received $35,000 for himself and his attorneys in a January 1987 agreement with the plant's builder, Brown & Root. They said the deal barred Macktal from testifying to the NRC regarding his concerns about unsafe plant conditions.
Macktal contends in a new complaint with the Labor Department that he signed the deal under duress.
Brown & Root, in a statement from its Houston headquarters, said the payment to Macktal and his attorneys was in settlement of an earlier complaint he made to the Labor Department that he was forced to quit because he had questioned Brown & Root's quality controls at Comanche Peak.
The payment was meant to limit litigation costs, the company said.
The company acknowledged that the deal prevents Macktal from appearing as a witness before the NRC, but it said the intent of this provision was to protect the company from ''the need to defend against'' his Labor complaint in another forum.
It said Macktal had ample opportunity to provide any safety information to the NRC prior to signing the deal.
The first of two reactors at Comanche Peak is 99 percent complete and its owner, Texas Utilities Generating Co., is expected to apply for a low-power license next year. The other reactor at the site, near Glen Rose, is 85 percent complete.
Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, said the Macktal agreement came to light after the NRC's atomic safety and licensing board had ended its Comanche Peak hearings last July.
''The NRC has basically condoned a practice which has the potential to endanger millions of lives by suppressing important information about potential safety problems,'' he said. ''This is a nuclear Valdez waiting to happen.''
Subcommittee sources said the panel has documented another case at Comanche Peak in which a worker who had raised safety concerns received $30,000 as part of a deal with Gibbs & Hill Inc., a contractor at the plant site. They said the arrangement prohibits the employee, Lorenzo Polizzi, from testifying before the NRC about safety issues.
At Gibbs & Hill headquarters in New York, spokeswoman Debra Fay said she was not familiar with the case and no company official was immediately available to comment.
The subcommittee also is investigating a contractor-worker agreement involving the Millstone nuclear power station at Waterford, Conn., the sources said. No details were provided.