Department of Labor Upholds LANL Whistleblower's Complaint

New Law Sets Schedule for Removing Plutonium from Savannah River Site

The U.S. Labor Department recently upheld the complaint of whistleblower Joe Gutierrez in his dispute with Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL). Gutierrez claimed that LANL retaliated against him after he presented evidence that they were lying about compliance with federal Clean Air Act regulations for radionuclide emissions. This concludes LANL's third appeal of the case, which was filed by Gutierrez in 1997. Gutierrez says, "Hopefully [LANL] won't appeal this so we can get this behind us...."

In 1996, Gutierrez was an employee in LANL's Audits and Assessments Department when he presented documents that indicated that LANL was out of compliance with Clean Air Act regulations. After LANL ignored his findings, Gutierrez took the information to Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (or CCNS), who was suing the Department of Energy (or DOE) for Clean Air Act violations at LANL. Partially based on the information provided by Gutierrez, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of CCNS and ordered LANL to submit to up to four independent Clean Air Act compliance audits. The third audit was completed this October.

After releasing the information to the public, Gutierrez was ostracized within his department at LANL and moved to another. Furthermore, almost all of the categories of his employee performance evaluation contained only glowing remarks about his performance, although one section claimed that Gutierrez had lost the confidence of managers whose programs he assessed.

The Labor Department ordered LANL to pay Gutierrez $49,000 for attorney's fees, implement a retroactive salary increase, and remove all negative remarks from his employee record. LANL representatives refused to comment on the case, saying that it had not yet run its full course. However, Gutierrez says, "Hopefully...we can all move forward."

* A provision in the defense bill signed into law by President Bush last week includes a timetable for the removal of plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and fines for DOE if they fail to comply with the established deadlines. DOE may be penalized $1 million per day or up to $100 million per year if they do not meet the deadlines. Savannah River has been selected for a new facility that will convert 34 tons of plutonium to mixed-oxide (or MOX) fuel, which can be used to fuel nuclear reactors.

South Carolina Representative Lindsey Graham, who authored the provision, said, "This legislation provides unprecedented protections for the state. It has a requirement that all plutonium leave the state at a certain date if the MOX program fails and those requirements are backed by unprecedented financial penalties for noncompliance."

However, the Nuclear Control Institute says that under the new timetable, it will take over 770 years to convert all of the plutonium stored at Savannah River into MOX fuel. South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges supports the Institute's finding and argues that DOE will use Savannah River for long-term plutonium storage.

The bill follows Hodge's lawsuit alleging that DOE had not conducted proper environmental studies to ensure the safety of shipping plutonium to Savannah River. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case early next year.

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