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By Rebecca Kern
Aug. 11 — The Energy Department could fine contractors and subcontractors retaliating against whistle-blowers who raise concerns about nuclear safety, the department said in a proposed rule.
If a contractor retaliates against an employee who raises a radiation hazard that is a violation of a nuclear safety requirement, the contractor may be fined for creating the hazard and may have to pay the employee for the retaliation, according to the proposed rule, (RIN:1992-AA52), which is expected to be published in the Federal Register Aug. 12.
The proposed rule would list the regulations included in the definition of DOE nuclear safety requirements. In the past, there have been questions about the scope of DOE’s authority to issue fines for violations of these regulations, including the regulation that prohibits retaliation against whistle-blowers.
The DOE said it doesn't expect these fines will approach $100 million in any single year.
The department also issued an acquisition letter Aug. 4 directed toward DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration contracting officers providing guidance on reimbursement of whistle-blowers' legal costs.
The letter said that a primary consideration as to whether one of the contracting companies can be reimbursed in such cases is whether the company in fact retaliated against the whistle-blower. Just because a company wins in its defense doesn't necessarily mean it will be entitled to reimbursement costs, the letter said.
This reimbursement guidance from the DOE comes after a letter from Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) asking what the agency had done in terms of deciding how it goes about reimbursing legal fees and settlements for illegal activities by department contractors.
The guidance and proposed rule also come after the Government Accountability Office issued a report July 14 recommending the DOE improve its whistle-blower protections.
Comments on the proposed rule are due Sept. 12.
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