Is Nuclear Safety Culture Suffering Under the Weight of the Biden Vaccine Mandate?

The American nuclear industry has a track record of being one of the safest and most secure power producers in the United States. That decades-long track record may soon change due to the deleterious effects of the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

Those who operate nuclear facilities are highly trained and hard-to-replace engineers, operators, and technicians. Those who guard nuclear facilities and various types of nuclear materials are a mix of civil servants who work for the federal government and highly trained contractors with decades of experience. They maintain some of the highest-level security clearance requirements possible for American citizens. All these personnel are hard to replace, critical thinkers who conduct high stakes risk analysis and risk mitigation for a living. 

So, when faced with the risk versus reward decision regarding whether to take the COVID-19 vaccine, many of them have opted not to take the experimental drug. With Executive Order 14042, which mandates the vaccine for federal contractors, many of these personnel sought exemptions on religious, medical, or other grounds. The response from “leaders” in the government and industry has been troubling, especially at an important nuclear industrial complex in the state of South Carolina. 

The Savannah River Site is a 310-square mile facility operated by the Department of Energy that spans three counties in South Carolina and is bordered by the Savannah River, separating the land from the state of Georgia. The facility was created during the Cold War to perform atomic research and produce many forms of nuclear and non-nuclear chemicals and technologies. According to a Department of Energy report, “radioactive waste stored in SRS tanks poses the single greatest environmental risk in the State of South Carolina.” 

Given the exceptionally high level of national security, nuclear safety, and environmental protection issues the site faces, the Savannah River Site’s leaders and managers are expected to uphold an overall net-positive “nuclear safety culture” which promotes critical thinking, upholds the U.S. and state constitutions and law, keeps promises, and takes care of the welfare of employees and the local community. 

Unfortunately, according to several current and former employees of various contractors at the site, the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate is causing these leaders to do the opposite. 

Multiple employees of Centerra Group LLC, one of the facility’s contractors, have filed a seven-count complaint that shows how the company’s private enforcement of the vaccine mandate violates both the U.S. and South Carolina constitutions. It includes examples of vaccine exemption request denials that put certain employees, such as combat veteran and Bronze Star recipient Shawn Williams—a member of the site’s special response team—at risk of death. 

According to his affidavit, Williams has a severe coronary disease and was advised by two of his personal doctors that the vaccine “benefits were zero and the risks could indeed prove fatal.” Williams’ affidavit reveals that he maintains “a Top-Secret Q clearance with Human Reliability Program adherence,” and that he is exceptionally concerned about the detrimental effects of the vaccine mandate on both the company’s personnel and its integrity.  

“The impact of Executive Order 14042 is so catastrophic that the company is attempting to artificially manipulate the Vulnerability Assessment data to mitigate the impending manpower shortage,” he wrote in the complaint. 

This artificial manipulation of vulnerability data suggests that the contractor and the government are assuming more risk than was previously acceptable to make up for the negative impacts in staffing caused by the vaccine mandate rather than accept that they do not have enough personnel to provide adequate security. 

This willingess to compromise on security is especially troubling given that the facility is home to the “Savannah River Tritium Enterprise,” which produces the nation’s only supply of tritium, and also because it hosts a new facility being developed to manufacture plutonium “pits, critical components for nuclear warheads that maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent. 

Meanwhile, additional affidavits filed in a federal court in Columbia, South Carolina demonstrate that Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS)—the top contractor at the Savannah River Site—used discrimination and coercion and “went above and beyond to make lives uncomfortable for those that would not comply.” 

One such affidavit included the transcript of an audio recording between two SRNS managers circa May 25, 2021 that said, “The policy that we’re following is designed to make it hard on people that are not vaccinated, for whatever reason that is.” 

The SRNS policy was indeed effective at making it hard on people not vaccinated, and it resulted in the termination of numerous employees who possessed critical skills. One anonymous employee explained: 

There are only a handful of professionals in the entire country certified to perform Vulnerability Assessments (Vas), pathway analysis, or conduct computer combat simulations to ascertain critical security weaknesses at a facility. There are even fewer who are capable of supporting Technical Security. There are even fewer Technical Security personnel than there are Physical Security personnel. They are rare beyond belief. And now SRNS has none.

Another contractor employee, wishing to remain anonymous, explained the heavy-handed execution of the vaccine mandate:  

SRNS has been engaged in a systematic campaign designed to financially and professionally harm any employee that did not receive the vaccine. From the holding of final paychecks, to the freezing of 401K assets, to lying to Federal and State Court officials, and even intentionally passing information that un-vaccinated employees were to be monitored and reported on as if they were terrorists and spies. The damage that was done to my professional reputation cannot be undone. I worked for over 40 years to build a professional reputation within the national security realm that resulted in my holding a Top SecretSecure Compartmented Information (TS-SCI) security clearance supporting Special Access Programs (SAP) involved in global and national security defense. That reputation is now shattered and can never be recovered.

Employees insist that the Savannah RIver Site leadership culture was not always this way. The site’s government and civilian leaders and managers used very disciplined testing, readiness, and assessment processes to develop and implement many new technologies over many decades

“They go through a technology maturation process which ensures safety of the technology, processes, workers and community . . . both near term and long term,” explained one employee, “these processes include very detailed data collection and trend evaluations to make key decisions.” 

Yet when highly capable employees examined data surrounding the development and rollout of the COVID vaccines and applied the same kind of critical analysis, some had concerns. But they never imagined Energy Department and contractor executives would respond to their own well-researched and reasonable health, safety, and ethical concerns with ridicule, censorship, and punishment. 

‘When employees questioned the decisions and actions of leadership, the response was authoritative in manner with directives and defense of the mandate vs genuine dialogue and there is an unwillingness to even consider other data, trends, and discussion, including impacts to safety,’ noted one employee. 

Rather than carefully listen to the valid concerns of these experienced security professionals, the “leaders” at Savannah River have persecuted, terminated, and even actively discussed labeling them as insider threats. 

“‘We Do the Right Thing’ is supposedly the motto of my employer but what is being done now is certainly not the right thing,” explained one employee, “this type of continued ‘leadership’ will destroy the Nuclear Safety Culture and ultimately destroy the safe, effective methods used today to perform work on the site.” 

In highly technical industries, the space shuttle Challenger explosionwhich occurred 36 years ago this monthis used as a watchword to warn against what can happen when a management culture ignores the warnings of highly competent subordinates. Savannah River employees fear a similar catastrophe may be repeated, unless something is done. 

One employee explained, “[I]f the culture is bad, you can count on the work execution being bad, which can lead to irreversible damages to the workers, the surrounding communities, and the environment.” 

Centerra LLC, its parent company Constellis, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions LLC, and the Department of Energy, did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication. 

Given the stakes, it’s past time Biden’s vaccine mandate be terminated, and those executives who unlawfully and inappropriately used it to harm their employees should be held accountable.

About Tommy Waller

Tommy Waller is director of infrastructure security at the Center for Security Policy. Previously, he spent two decades as a U.S. Marine infantry and expeditionary ground reconnaissance officer with deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and South America.

Photo: Atomic plant Vogtle, in Burke County, near Waynesboro, Georgia. Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images

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