Fired nuclear guard says she was bullied and groped by co-workers. Now she’s suing

Framatome on Horn Rapids Road in Richland fabricates uranium fuel for nuclear power plants.
Framatome on Horn Rapids Road in Richland fabricates uranium fuel for nuclear power plants. Courtesy Framatome

One of the few female security guards at the Framatome plant in Richland says she was fired after complaining about harassment by male co-workers over her 24-year career.

In a lawsuit claiming discrimination filed in federal court, Brenda Buccarelli said harassment included having urine and feces wiped on the toilet lid of the the woman’s guard restroom and having an obscenity etched into the lenses of her pink safety glasses.

Framatome said in a statement Tuesday that it had no comment on any ongoing litigation.

The company employs about 600 people at its Richland plant, formerly called Areva, which fabricates uranium fuel for nuclear power plants.

Buccarelli repeatedly reported issues to management and human resources, only to be faced with escalating retaliation, according to court documents filed by her attorney, William Gilbert of Spokane.

“She was always told several times not to be a victim,” according to court documents. “In other words the response from . . . management when she complained of harassment, bullying and retaliation was basically, ‘Suck it up, buttercup’.”

She said the problem began when she worked for what is now Framatome between 1988 and 1993 and had trouble with one male co-worker.

At one point he doubled up his fist and screamed an obscene phrase at her face, standing so close that his spit landed on her, according to the lawsuit, which was initially filed in Benton County Superior Court and later moved to U.S. District Court.

Lawsuit alleges sexual harassment

“The incident was the beginning of a long road of failures on the part of her employer to protect her from the male dominated workforce,” the lawsuit said.

Buccarelli left Framatome for five years for personal reasons and when she returned the same male co-worker made aggressive, unwanted sexual advances, the lawsuit said. He was then her supervisor.

Nuclear fuel rods sit on a vibratory rod loading table at the Framatome manufacturing plant in Richland. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Human resources did nothing to address his behavior, she claimed. When she complained again, she was ordered to undergo a fitness-for-duty exam, which she passed.

Her supervisor continued to harass her, interfering with her work schedule, sick time and vacation, the lawsuit said.

After more complaints by Buccarelli, Framatome proposed she and her supervisor attend “couples counseling” together, according to the suit

Buccarelli also reported another incident in which she said a male employee arrived at work drunk and groped her. The employee was required to enter a detox program, according to court documents.

That made the harassment escalate, including the defiling of the restroom she used. When she confronted the male guards, they laughed, she said.

In 2013, she found pornography on a guard station computer she used, and one of the male guards was suspended without pay, according to court documents.

Other guards told her to quit

After he returned to work he and other guards would ignore her radio calls, mock her and find ways to make her job more difficult, according to her claims in court documents.

“Her supervisor did nothing to stop the harassment and retaliation,” and she was repeatedly told by male guards that she should quit, according to court documents.

When one of the male guards told her she “deserved what she got” she angrily told him that she did not deserve the mess in the bathroom, pornography on her computer and being groped.

Framatome’s response was to reprimand her, said the lawsuit.

Issues culminated after the abbreviation for an obscene phrase was scratched into her safety glasses, according to court documents.

Four months after reporting the incident, and shortly after her husband who was also employed by Framatome became involved, she was called into a meeting with human resource officials about the glasses.

She was told that all the guards were interviewed and that they were shocked that anyone would deface her safety glasses, according to the lawsuit.

Buccarelli was asked to sign a paper already signed by all the other guards indicating they would comply with company policies.

The Framatome plant on Horn Rapids Road in Richland manufactures fuel for nuclear power plants. Tri-City Herald File

She complained that security guards had signed papers before regarding behavior, sexual harassment, pornography and drinking on duty but nothing changed, according to court documents.

Pay discrimination alleged

She was told by human resource officials not to be a victim and asked why she continued to work at Framatome if it made her so unhappy, according to court documents.

She said she was concerned about leaving a good-paying job in her 50s.

That was on a Friday and on Sunday she was called at home and told to take some time off, according to court documents.

A few days later on Aug. 3, 2017, she was told she had been fired.

Although she no longer worked for Framatome, male security guards continued to send her derogatory text messages, according to court documents. And she was told she could not attend the company’s 20-year employment celebration for her husband.

The lawsuit claims that Framatome was negligent in failing to train and supervise employees and to properly investigate claims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

The lawsuit also says the company discriminated against Buccarelli, including by paying her less than male security guards.

No specific damage amount is requested in the lawsuit.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.