The Department of Energy building in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The Department of Energy has temporarily halted an Obama administration regulation that allowed for civil penalties against federal nuclear contractors that retaliate against whistleblowers who report waste, fraud, abuse and dangerous conditions.

In procedural rules published in the Federal Register, the DOE said the regulation would be frozen from Jan. 31 until March 21 in keeping with President Trump’s “plan for managing the Federal regulatory process at the outset of the new Administration.”

A department summary of the rule says it “stays DOE regulations for the assessment of civil penalties against certain contractors and subcontractors for violations of the prohibition against an employee who reports violations of law, mismanagement, waste, abuse or dangerous/unsafe workplace conditions, among other protected activities, concerning nuclear safety.”

Whistleblower advocates worry the rule could discourage the reporting of violations.

“There is already a chilled atmosphere for DOE whistleblowers and the rule that has now been stayed was meant to help address that problem,” said Lydia Dennett, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight. “Halting the regulation from going forward does nothing to help the department and certainly will not encourage whistleblowers to come forward with legitimate safety concerns.”

Added Louis Clark, executive director and chief executive of the Government Accountability Project: “We have had to engage in pitched litigation against contractors who routinely fire any whistleblower who dares to expose contract fraud, extraordinary public health and safety dangers, and massive contamination of the environment and the workforce — 80 percent of the DOE’s entire budget goes to these contractors.

“This effort has nothing to do with deregulation so that business can thrive. These are government contractors running government facilities,” he continued by email. “These contractors must not be allowed to remain unaccountable, free from meaningful oversight, and able to attack whistleblowers and defend themselves though subsidies supplied by the very taxpayers who they have screwed over.”

Comment has been requested from the Energy Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

We’d like your help reporting this story. If you know of other agencies with similar rules regarding whistleblowers, please let us know. Send an email to joe.davidson@washpost.com with “whistleblower rules” in the subject line.