Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Repeated radiation warnings go unheeded at sensitive Idaho nuclear plant

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A disaster in waiting. Patrick Malone and Peter Cary report at the Center for Public Integrity:

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, Idaho. 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.

* BEA is a consortium consisting of Battelle, private non-profit based in Ohio, and BWX Technologies, AECOM, Electric Power Research Institute, and an alliance of eight universities.

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’s 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.

So when a nuclear material handler named Ralph Stanton noticed that some of the plates had a label warning that its 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.

Sure enough, as the wrapping was pulled away, black powder leaked out, and Stanton, along with 15 of his colleagues in the facility, inhaled the plutonium dust, according to the report. Three of them wound up suing BEA, saying that they had been sickened due to the company’s negligence. BEA publicly disputed that the workers were harmed, but it also reached private settlements with each of the litigants that included nondisclosure provisions.

The contamination incident was extensively covered by two newspapers published in Boise, the Idaho capital. But the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation shows it was preceded by two other serious instances of radioactive contamination at the lab as well as by Lewis’s careful warnings, and that it was also followed by two additional, avoidable radioactive contaminations there.

Laboratory deputy director Juan Alvarez said in an emailed statement that the lab’s leaders took the inhalation incident seriously and agreed with the Energy Department’s conclusion that “the accident was preventable.” As a result, he said, “the facility was closed for nine months and 80 corrective actions were implanted.” He and spokeswoman Sarah Neumann did not answer other questions about specific safety incidents but Alvarez added that “we value our people” and “learn from the past.”

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.

During the period of the five worker radiation contaminations from 2011 to 2014, the Energy Department paid BEA $68.5 million in pure profits, amounting to 92 percent of the maximum its contract allowed, the Center’s tally shows. (Its actual expenses in running the lab were reimbursed in full.) . . .

Continue reading.

Incompetence is metastasizing. I don’t believe Rick Perry is the man to fix this. And I’m wondering why the Obama administration seemed to have been asleep at the switch on this.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2017 at 11:13 am

Posted in Business, Government, Health

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