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Fukushima Provides Another Reason to Support Whistleblower Protection

Washington, D.C. whistleblower lawyer Tony Munter contributed this blog post.

We search the earth high and low for interesting news of whistleblowers, and today’s news comes from far away Japan.  It’s pretty instructive as to why whistleblowers really do matter and should be protected in any society.

Whistleblower law is not always about getting money back for the government under the Federal False Claims Act (although we certainly see nothing wrong with that).  Sometimes it’s also about public safety. Without whistleblowers making their concerns known, organizations often will fail to tell.  So the public never learns of the risks or, worse, just has to live with the risks.

Today’s reminder comes from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan.  Yes it melted down quite a while ago. Whatever you think of the value of nuclear power as an energy source, you want a nuclear plant to be built to the highest standards. The Fukushima Plant created a safety hazard, to put it mildly, after the combination of an earthquake and tsunami created one of the worst disasters in the industry’s history.

After the disaster, workers attempted to contain the damage.  They tried to build structures to contain radioactive water in steel tanks.

The lead from an article in The Telegraph kind of says it all about whistleblowers:

The whistleblower told Kyodo News that it was feared even while construction was going on that the steel tanks would leak.

Yes, of course there is more:

“We gave priority to making the tanks rather than quality control,” the construction worker said. “There were fears that toxic water could leak.

“All of the tanks are makeshift and more toxic water may leak as they deteriorate,” he added.

Well, there you are.  Fukushima is a long way away from here, and (here comes the rest of my series of disclaimers) we don’t know what’s going on exactly and certainly have no idea as to what is involved under Japanese law, and this blog is not legal advice in any case.

Still, the pattern is familiar to whistleblower attorneys and whistleblowers in the U.S.  The whistleblower points to a problem, but instead of fixing the problem, the organization ignores the whistleblower (at best) or at worst attacks the whistleblower.  There is a reason the sources cited as whistleblowers in this story needed to remain anonymous.

In this country, there are specific whistleblower laws and regulations that are supposed to protect people who report on matters of public safety.  If the plant is owned by a government agency, which pays a private contractor, or if it receives government funds, then in this country, it might also be possible to bring a False Claims Act case and to sue for retaliation under the anti-retaliation provisions of that law.

Nuclear radiation, of course, can start in one country and become a problem all over the place.  We’d like to believe the United States would set a strong example and protect whistleblowers in this industry, if only to set an example throughout the rest of the world.  Nobody seriously wants more nuclear radiation, we hope, and hiding safety problems is not a method of fixing them.

Yes, Japan is a long way away, but as the old saying goes one nuclear accident can ruin your whole day.  Fukushima became a disaster after the tsunami hit in 2011, and it seems people in charge still are not listening to the voices that counsel safety.

They are out there though, blowing the whistle every day, and it’s important, in Japan and everywhere else, that we listen to them.