Following decades of opposition from environmental groups and communities concerned about the risks of nuclear power, the U.S. nuclear industry in mid-2007 is preparing for its largest expansion since the 1960s. Worry about oil shortages and global warming is prompting legislators and regulators to call for reducing the burning of fossil fuels and expanding the use of nuclear energy for production of electricity. Congress is considering loan guarantees and other measures that will make it easier for the industry to reach its goal of building some 28 new reactors in coming years.
If the industry’s past is any guide to its future, the next ten years will see a growing number of safety problems as utilities rush to build and bring their plants online. From planning to construction, licensing, fueling and operation, each stage in the launching of a nuclear power plant generates countless safety issues, as licensees and their managers can be counted on to cut corners and overlook or hide serious problems at least some percentage of the time. Add to this the fact that some 150 aging reactors are already in use nationwide, and the scenario is nothing short of alarming.
The building of new reactors and the aging of existing ones means an increased responsibility for people who work in and around nuclear facilities, as their co-workers and communities will count on them to be on the lookout for violations of nuclear safety standards. As they have since the birth of the industry after World War II, these employees — from construction workers and plant operators to scientists, engineers and managers — will play a front-line position in the prevention of nuclear accidents that can pose significant danger to society.
The Energy Reorganization Act of 1978 (ERA)1 provides strong protections for contractors and employees who provide information about, or participate in investigations relating to, what they believe to be violations of nuclear safety laws and standards. The following overview gives these workers in the nuclear industry some of the information they need to know before blowing the whistle on nuclear safety issues.