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Whistleblower Claims He Was Forced To Take Hush Money

May 5, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A former nuclear plant worker told Congress on Thursday he was ″under duress″ when he accepted a secret labor settlement with the plant’s builder that rewarded him for not telling federal regulators about alleged safety flaws.

In sworn testimony to a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee, Joseph J. Macktal said he now believes the agreement was illegal because it contains clauses that restrict his right to testify to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

″The agreement prevented me from talking to anybody″ about safety issues, Macktal said.

He signed the agreement about 18 months before NRC licensing hearings on the Comanche Peak power plant ended. No final licensing decision has been made yet.

The subcommittee is investigating how many such secret deals have been made at the nation’s 110 licensed commercial nuclear power plants. Officials said earlier this week the panel knows of one other and is seeking details of a third.

Louis Austin Jr., president of Brown & Root, the company that built the Comanche Peak plant, near Glen Rose, Texas, told the subcommittee he believed the Macktal deal was legal. But he added the company wished the law were cleared.

Mark Augenblick, a Brown & Root lawyer, went further, saying, ″With the benefit of hindsight we should have″ settled Macktal’s case without limiting his right to testify to the NRC.

Macktal, who worked at Comanche Peak from January 1985 to January 1986, signed the agreement to settle his complaint with the Labor Department that Brown & Root had unfairly dismissed him as a result of his allegations about unsafe conditions. He said the deal gave him $15,000, and his lawyers got $20,000.

″I was under duress,″ as a result of financial pressure from lawyers, he said. ″They did browbeat me″ into signing the deal, he said in reference to the lawyers.

When Macktal was asked by Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., to explain what happened, Sen. John Breaux, the panel chairman, interrupted the questioning to say this issue could not be pursued further because it is the subject of court action.

Breaux released a copy of the once-confidential agreement, made Jan. 2, 1987. He said it amounted to ″silence-for-money″ that violated numerous federal laws and regulations and should be publicly denounced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Breaux, D-La., and Simpson both lambasted the NRC, which is responsible for licensing and ensuring safety at all commercial nuclear plants, for failing to take a firm stand on the matter.

″It is shocking that we should even have to hold a hearing on such questions,″ Breaux said, adding such secret deals undermine public confidence in nuclear power.

Lando W. Zech Jr., the NRC chairman, said he personally agreed with Breaux that such deals are illegal but that some of the four other commissions disagreed.

″Something has to be done about it,″ Zech said, adding that the commission had instructed its chief of operations and its top legal counsel to study the matter and recommend ways the commission can clarify its policy on such settlements.

He said all nuclear utilities have been told to report any such deals to the NRC by July 31.

James R. Curtiss, a member of the commission, told the subcommittee he was not convinced the Macktal agreement was illegal. He stressed that although it contained some restrictions on Macktal’s right to testify before the commission, it did not explicitly stop him from contacting the NRC staff about safety matters.

Simpson said the Macktal deal contained so much restrictive and ambiguous language that it ″strains every bit of common sense in the world″ to believe Macktal would feel free to pursue his safety allegations with members of the NRC staff.

″This stinks,″ Simpson said.

Texas Utilities Generating Co., the owner of Comanche Peak, is expected to apply for a low-power license next year for one of the station’s reactors, which is 99 percent complete. The other reactor is 85 percent complete.

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