Lawyer to NRC: Hit TVA with fine of $1 million
Action stems from whistleblower case at Watts Bar plant
July 3, 2001
By Nancy Zuckerbrod, Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for a man who raised safety concerns at a Tennessee
Valley Authority nuclear facility are urging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to levy a hefty fine against the public utility.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should fine TVA at least $1 million for its treatment of Curtis Overall of Cleveland, Tenn., attorney Lynne Bernabei wrote in a letter sent to the commission Monday.

"Clearly TVA failed to maintain a harassment-free work environment. More importantly, TVA carried out this harassment and retaliation," Bernabei wrote.

In May, a Labor Department review board ordered TVA to pay $50,000 in compensatory damages to Overall, who exposed problems at the Watts Bar facility in Spring City.

The agency also ordered TVA to pay Overall's attorneys fees.

Because of that ruling, the NRC is now considering taking enforcement action against TVA, said commission spokesman Roger Hannah.

He said the commission wrote TVA a letter on June 18 stating that enforcement action was possible.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis said the utility would respond to the NRC in writing this month.

In 1995, Overall was removed from his job overseeing the ice condenser containment system at Watts Bar after he found nearly 200 screws were either broken or missing from the system and asked that the problem be inspected.

A judge sided with Overall in 1998 and ordered that he be rehired and receive back pay.

But Overall said harassment against him continued.

He currently is on medical leave.

The Labor Department's decision in May upheld the earlier ruling, but TVA is appealing the case in federal court.

Bernabei says TVA will change its ways only if the commission makes it economically painful for the utility to harass whistleblowers.

"It has to be big enough that it really sends a signal," Bernabei said.

But Hannah said a $1 million fine would be unusual.

"That's fairly high," he said. "... There have been civil penalties that were in that range against utilities, but it's far from common."

Hannah said the NRC inspected TVA's ice condensers and determined they were safe.

"We're satisfied they could operate as designed if called upon in an emergency," he said.

Nine nuclear reactors in the United States use ice condenser containers. Seven are in the Southeast.

The systems are designed to protect the public from radiation releases in the event of a nuclear accident by using chipped ice to absorb steam and heat.