A Nuclear Whistleblower at Home
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Oscar Shirani just didn't understand when his former employer, Exelon, wouldn't stop its high-level nuclear waste container manufacturer. The containers, like the ones Shirani say headed for the Dresden plant in Illinois, are being filled with radioactive spent fuel and installed at nuclear plants around the country. Shirani fears the shoddy work will result in affecting the health of millions of people.
Despite their delicate and deadly cargo, the casks "are nothing but garbage cans" if their fabrication violates government specs, said Shirani.
Instead of giving him a medal for thorough work and dedication, Shirani says Exelon convinced him to transfer to another job and then, conveniently, laid him off. The self-described "company man," turned freshly minted whistleblower, might be able to do what anti-nuclear activists have been unable to accomplish -- pounding nails into the nuclear casket, forcing old plants to shut down. Then again, the federal government could acknowledge the alleged sub-standard work and hope the casks don't leak anytime in the next few thousand years.
The nuclear industry has turned to on-site radioactive waste storage in what's called "dry casks" in order to keep nuclear plants humming. Commercial nukes all have spent fuel pools. When those are filled up -- and most are at, or near, capacity already -- environmentalists expected the industry would be forced to turn off the plants.
Like a clogged septic tank, you have to quit flushing when it's full. But environmentalists were out-flanked by industry when it figured out a new "sewage" storage plan.
Industry hoped that it would have a permanent waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, long before now. Nuclear plant owners, however, could see that a Yucca repository is a far off, if ever, possibility. They moved to simply build a new and different kind of above-ground septic tank.
What Shirani alleges is that those tanks (a company called Holtec designed them and uses U.S. Tool & Die to make them) are not being fabricated to Nuclear Regulatory Commission specs. While some believe NRC specs themselves don't provide much safety assurance, Shirani did.
"I thought the NRC was a big dog and a force," he said, but without the kind of oversight he maintains was thwarted, the safety of nuclear plants "is suspect."
Shirani's nuke casket story is akin to, say, ordering a new Hummer from the dealership. In the glossy brochure, the thick boxy steel can repel almost anything short of armor-piercing projectiles. But when you get the SUV home, you find it's made of glued fiberglass and spills passengers all over the sidewalk at every approaching pothole.
If the casks are shoddy, would they leak radioactivity and endanger public health? Shirani could only guess that it could affect "millions." Activists say they just don't know.
"Federal regulations should not make [Shirani], or us, or the NRC, or the cask owner guess about consequences," said David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer. "The regulations require a certain level of performance and his findings were below that minimum level. It may not be that the cask will fail when challenged, but they are unnecessarily and illegally closer to the failure point."
Welds on the casks were performed by "unqualified welders" and materials control was inadequate for the casks, Shirani reported to Exelon in mid-2000. Fabrication engendered brittleness in materials, weakening them, Shirani notes. He maintains Holtec failed to report holes in the neutron shielding material. He allleges that Exelon "falsified" quality assurance documents and "misled" the NRC in last year's investigation of the problem. He found "hundreds of non-conformance items." Overall, he claims that what is being manufactured to hold nuclear waste is not what was approved in conceptual design by the federal government.
"I called my people in Washington and tried to get them to do something, but they didn't do anything," said Ross Landsman, NRC Region III inspector in a January deposition provided by Shirani.
"Every time I find some stuff wrong with any of the Holtec stuff, my brilliant cohorts in Washington say, 'Give them an exemption'," Landsman said sarcastically. "Holtec, as far as I'm concerned, has a non-effective QA (quality assurance) program and US Tool & Die has no QA program whatsoever."
Landsman added that the issues raised by Shirani on the casks headed for the Dresden plant had not been resolved, despite an August 2000 audit stating the problems had been fixed.
Shirani had audited Holtec and its suppliers for the Nuclear Users Procurement Issues Committee, identifying what he calls "major design and fabrication issues" against Holtec in 1999 and 2000. He filed those with the NRC in November 2000. The NRC closed the allegations procedure a year later.
Shirani said he tried to put a "stop work" order on the casks' fabrication to no avail. Anti-nuclear activists have followed up on Shirani's claims, filing Freedom of Information Act requests to find out what the government did about these claims.
The activists are backing Shirani in his quest to get the NRC to look into the original allegations and their cover up through the NRC inspector general.
"The NRC has not contacted us," responded Brian Gutherman, Holtec manager of licensing. "The NRC did approve the design as a snapshot in time. We're allowed to make certain changes below the safety threshold." Gutherman said Holtec "is absolutely not concerned" about cask safety and potential leakage, and that between the NRC and Holtec's clients, "nowhere has anyone suggested such a thing." As for Shirani, Gutherman said, "He's just making things up."
If the casks are found to be fabricated below specifications, the NRC could simply let them be. "They could be accepted as is or get approval of the [changed] design. There could also be an exemption," said NRC spokesperson John Monninger. He added, though, there is a possibility the government won't let the casks be used at all.
Being a whistleblower isn't easy. You can be celebrated, like Jeff Wigand who revealed the dirt on tobacco purveyors Brown & Williamson and had a movie, "The Insider," made about him. Most likely, though, whistleblowers lose their livelihood, are mocked by their former peers and considered "eccentric" at best -- all this for deciding to follow the muse of conscience instead of the dominant paradigm.
"It's ethical cleansing," of the nuclear industry, chided Union of Concerned Scientists' Lochbaum -- a former industry man himself.
Shirani's former employer, Exelon, rejected the dust-up. "His case has been heard by numerous boards and agencies and it was dismissed. There is no substantiation for those claims," said Exelon spokesperson Ann Mary Carley She could, however, say that only the labor administrative review board has heard Shirani's complaints. The board's decisions are on appeal.
As a pro-nuclear power conservative company man, Shirani can't help still believing in the efficacy of the system -- but now he believes that the system can be flawed.
"Without the enforcement [of NRC regulations] I believe that we allow these people to spit on the face of quality and safety. This would be my top priority in my life more than my financial damage -- to see justice served."
Holtec casks approved, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson:
Pennsylvania: Exelon, Dresden
Oregon: Portland General Electric (Enron), Trojan
New York: Entergy, Fitzpatrick
Georgia: Southern Nuclear Operating Company, Hatch
Washington: Energy Northwest, Columbia Generating Station
Holtec casks in consideration by nuclear plant owners according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson:
Alabama: Farley, Southern Nuclear Operating Company
Tennessee: Tennessee Valley Authority, Sequoyah
Arkansas: Tennessee Valley Authority, Browns Ferry; Entergy, ANO
Vermont: Entergy, Vermont Yankee
Louisiana: Entergy, Riverbend
Utah: Consortium of owners and utilities known as Private Fuel Storage for a potential waste site.
California: Pacific Gas & Electric, Diablo Canyon; Humboldt Bay.
J.A. Savage is an environmental economics reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area.