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Unheeded warnings, repeated mistakes put workers’ health at risk at Idaho nuclear lab via Idaho Statesman

Ted Lewis knew the plutonium plates at the government lab where he worked could leak potentially lethal radioactive dust.

He had seen it occur in the 1970s, when he was helping load some of those plates into a nuclear reactor at the lab near Idaho Falls. A steel jacket enclosing one of the plates somehow cracked, spilling plutonium oxide particles into the air. But Lewis and his colleagues were lucky — they were wearing respirators and given cleansing showers, so their lives weren’t endangered.

Three decades later, Lewis, an electrical engineer who had become chairman of the lab’s safety committee, had a bad feeling this could happen again, with a worse outcome. And he turned out to be right.

He tried to head it off. In 2009, Lewis wrote a pointed warning memo — he called it a white paper — and gave it to the official in charge of all nuclear operations at the Idaho National Laboratory, which is run by a consortium of private companies and universities under contract to the Energy Department.

The memo said the chance of encountering a plutonium plate that disintegrated, as Lewis had previously witnessed, was “greater than facility and senior management realizes,” according to a copy. Although Lewis said that a workplace manual published by the contractor — Battelle Energy Alliance LLC (BEA) — called the risk of an accidental spill of such radioactive dust “negligible,” he wanted his superiors to expect it and prepare for it.

He said in a sworn court deposition in January 2016 that he shared his concerns with at least 19 others at the laboratory, which holds one of the world’s largest stockpiles of plutonium, the explosive at the heart of modern nuclear weapons. But they didn’t respond, he said, and some of the precautions he urged — checking the plates more carefully before they were unwrapped and repackaged for shipment and setting up a decontamination shower — were ignored.

Then, at 11:04 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011, Lewis’ fears came to life in a cavernous room at the lab where workers were readying some plates the size of Hershey’s chocolate bars for shipment to other federal sites and to researchers. The workers had a lead shield between themselves and the plates, but the table where they sorted the plates wasn’t sealed, and none of them had respirators on.

When a nuclear material handler named Ralph Stanton noticed that one plate’s container had a label warning that the plate’s corner was “swollen,” he asked a shift supervisor for guidance. The supervisor phoned one of the lab officials whom Ted Lewis had briefed on his worries, but after finishing the call the official told the workers to continue, according to an internal Department of Energy report in January 2012.

[…]
 
Accidents persisted at the lab after the 2011 incident. But officials in Washington charged with overseeing worker safety — and annually deciding how much profit BEA would be paid based on its performance — decided not to let the incidents seriously dent the company’s revenues. They failed, in short, to use either of two key federal levers available to force improved workplace protections for those involved in handling the nuclear materials that underpin America’s security — by imposing fines or cutting profits enough to compel an end to new safety hazards, or by holding up or completely blocking an extension of the lab’s private management contract.
 
[…]

Moreover, in 2014 — the year that two new contamination episodes occurred — the contractor group received a five-yearextension of its contract without a competition urged by federal regulations, enabling it to forgo millions of dollars in costs associated with a new contest.

That’s not all. BEA’s contract with Washington — like those the government has signed with most nuclear weapons-related contractors — allows it to pass along to taxpayers the costs of resolving safety-related litigation by its workers, except in the event of what government officials conclude is gross negligence, discrimination, or improper retaliation against whistleblowing.

[…]

Idaho National Laboratory is not unique. The government has been similarly generous to many of the other private contractors that operate key nuclear weapons-related facilities. Part of the problem, according to auditors at the Government Accountability Office, which reports to Congress, is that the Energy Department has too little staff, and poorly-trained contract managers, making it more susceptible to fraud and waste than most agencies.

The contractors largely police themselves, according to the GAO and inspector general reports. Penalties do not cause enough pain to act as deterrents, safety experts say. And — as might be expected — the contractors typically prioritize the mission-related responsibilities that bear directly and most strongly on their profits, according to current and former workers and accident investigation reports.

[…]

The reports said workers should have been told along the way of their monthly exposures, so they were not surprised by their cumulative doses. Also, in a problem that would recur in multiple incidents, the lab did not check the glovebox for a particular type of radiation commonly exuded by the material they worked on, according to the BEA investigative report. That type of radiation is not harmless — it can cause cell damage, cancer, and even death in high doses.

Work in the facility was stopped for three months in early 2011 to review procedures and retrain the staff there, but the retraining didn’t seem to take hold.

[…]

According to the reports and the accounts obtained by the Center from those present, when the powder spilled out, Braase, the health physicist, pointed a radiation meter at it from three inches away, and the needle leapt into the red. Three minutes after the spill, the alarm across the room screamed.

Stanton, Simmons, Braase and the other workers in the room fled to the building’s control room, where they watched a radiation meter in their workplace swiftly climb to a level hundreds of times above a trigger for donning respirators. “I was scared. Everybody was,” Stanton said. “We knew this was bad.”

A hand-held monitor showed that Braase had plutonium on his face, hair and body, he said in his lawsuit. His clothing was removed, and workers used towels and wipes to clean his skin before putting him into a shower in another building. Those with the highest levels of contamination, including Stanton and Simmons, were shuttled to a building 20 miles away, where they were given intravenous medicine to counter the effects of the radiation.

[…]
 
The gravity of their exposures has nonetheless been contested, partly because the urine samples the workers provided on the day of their exposure were altered by the medication that four of them, including Braase, Simmons and Stanton, were swiftly given. In his lawsuit, Simmons said BEA radiation control officials initially showed him a report saying that his bone surface dose could have been as high as 265 rem, a level five times the annual federal occupational dose limit, 212 times the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limit, and 2,650 times the annual federal dose limit for the public.
 

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